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What Is Social Responsibility? Exploring Its Meaning and Importance

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By Jacob Maslow

December 10, 2023

Social responsibility is a concept that extends beyond individuals to include businesses and organizations. At its core, it’s about companies considering their operations’ impact on society and the environment. It’s an ethical framework suggesting that entities, be they people or companies, must act for the benefit of society at large.

For businesses, this means operating in ways that enhance society and the environment rather than contributing negatively. Social responsibility can manifest in various forms, such as ethical practices , environmental stewardship , and philanthropy. It’s not just about complying with legal requirements but going above and beyond to improve the quality of life for employees , communities, and the ecosystem.

Key Takeaways

  • Social responsibility represents an entity’s duty to impact society and the environment positively.
  • Businesses embrace social responsibility by engaging in ethical practices and contributing to community well-being.
  • Proper implementation of corporate social responsibility can lead to mutual benefits for businesses and society.

what is the meaning of social and environmental responsibility essay

Understanding Social Responsibility in Business

When talking about social responsibility in business, you’re looking at the way companies manage their business processes to produce an overall positive impact on society . It’s not just about profits— socially responsible organizations understand that their actions affect a wide circle of stakeholders, from their employees and customers to the broader community and the environment.

  • Stakeholders vs. Shareholders: Remember, stakeholders are more than just shareholders; they’re anyone impacted by the business, including the community and environment.

Social responsibility in business, often called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is an automated model where a business monitors its adherence to ethical standards and international norms. Here’s how it typically works:

  • Philanthropy: Businesses often contribute to charitable causes to improve the communities where they operate. This could mean donating money, staff time, or resources.
  • Ethical Labor Practices : Ensuring operations respect worker rights and offer fair wages.
  • Eco-Friendly Operations : Minimizing environmental footprint through sustainable practices .

By integrating CSR into their business model, companies foster goodwill and often see a boost in their brand’s reputation. However, CSR efforts should be genuine and not just a marketing ploy.

Tip! If you’re a business leader , start by evaluating your company’s impact on all stakeholders and looking for improvement areas. This could be as straightforward as reducing waste or as involved as setting up a community outreach program.

Key Takeaway:

Embrace the notion that your business operations can have a substantial ripple effect. By committing to socially responsible practices, you’re not just ticking a box but actively contributing to a better world.

Key Characteristics of Socially Responsible Businesses

Certain key traits come to mind when you think of socially responsible businesses. These businesses often stand out because they prioritize more than just their bottom lines. They care about the impact they have on the world. Let’s walk through some of these foundational characteristics.

Transparency is pivotal. Businesses that operate openly and share information freely earn your trust. They’ll typically publish reports detailing their operations, successes, and areas to improve.

  • Having clear values grounds these businesses. They know what they stand for and ensure their practices align with these beliefs. Their mission statements show a sincere commitment to social, environmental, and economic improvement.

Accountability is where these companies own up to their impact. They take responsibility for their actions, including mistakes, and work diligently to make things right. This acts as a self-imposed check on their operations, keeping them aligned with their ethical commitments .

  • Focusing on ethical practices ensures that decisions are fair and considerate of all stakeholders. This means employees, customers, and the society at large can expect fair treatment and integrity.

Sustainability is the thread that ties their long-term goals to the present. Practice-wise, you’ll notice measures to reduce their environmental footprint and champion  renewable resources . This isn’t just good for the planet; it’s good for business, too.

Key Takeaway: You’re looking at businesses that value openness, stick to their principles, answer for their actions, operate pretty, and prioritize the future of our planet. Companies embracing these traits are not just doing well; they’re doing good.

Ethical Responsibility in the Corporate Sphere

When you think about ethics in business, you’re dealing with the principles of proper conduct that guide your company’s actions. Ethical responsibility is a core component of corporate social responsibility. It covers how companies conduct their business in an ethical way that considers both their business objectives and the greater good.

Ethics : This aspect drives companies to operate with integrity, making decisions that are not just legal but also right in a moral sense. It pushes you to consider the broader impact of your business choices.

Justice : As part of ethical responsibility, your company must be fair in its practices. This includes fair treatment of employees, shareholders, and customers. Whether through respectful engagement or fair trade practices, justice ensures that your corporate actions do not favor one group unfairly over another.

  • Fair compensation
  • Health and safety standards
  • Respect for labor rights

Ethical Manner : Carrying out business ethically means being transparent with stakeholders and avoiding actions that might cause harm to individuals, communities, or the environment. This includes everything from reducing ecological footprint to ensuring that advertising is honest.

  • Environmental stewardship
  • Accurate marketing
  • Community involvement

Remember, fostering an ethical culture is not just about avoiding wrongdoing, but actively doing right by all parties involved with your business. Committing to ethical responsibility shapes a corporate identity that employees and consumers trust and want to support.

Key takeaway : Ethical responsibility is the compass that guides your business actions, ensuring they align with moral and just practices for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Exploring the Broad Categories of Social Responsibility

Social responsibility is the idea that you and organizations are obligated to act for the benefit of society at large. It’s a broad concept that can take many forms, depending on the context and the entity involved. Here, we’ll look at the main types of social responsibility that you may encounter or consider integrating into business strategies.

Environmental Responsibility

  • Sustainability: You should conserve natural resources to support long-term ecological balance. Sustainable practices include reducing emissions, conserving water, and minimizing waste.
  • Profitability and the Environment: Finding a balance between making a profit and preventing environmental degradation is crucial. It’s about long-term business viability and protecting natural resources for future generations.

Philanthropic Responsibility

  • Donating to charities.
  • Supporting educational programs.
  • Engaging in community development.

Economic Responsibility

  • Providing fair wages and safe working conditions.
  • Engaging in fair trade.
  • Contributing to the economy without exploiting it.

Key Takeaway: Your impact on society can be positive or negative. You foster a more sustainable and equitable world by focusing on environmental preservation, supporting philanthropic efforts, and upholding ethical and economic practices.

The Challenge of Implementing CSR Effectively

When you embark on the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) journey, steering through the complexities of implementation can be daunting.

Regulatory Landscape: Maneuvering through regulations requires diligence. Each country has its own set of laws that govern CSR activities, and staying compliant necessitates a thorough understanding of these laws. Break them into digestible pieces to ensure you don’t miss any legal requirements.

Developing CSR Strategies: A sound strategy is your roadmap. Crafting CSR initiatives that align with your company’s values and stakeholder expectations involves the intricate weaving of ethical practices into your business model. Be sure to:

  • Identify core values
  • Engage stakeholders
  • Set achievable goals

Adherence to Guidelines: The ISO 26000 guides social responsibility and can serve as a valuable reference point. However, interpreting and applying these guidelines within the context of your business can be tricky. Simplify by focusing on key areas relevant to your operations.

Common Challenges:

  • Resource Allocation: Financing CSR projects often competes with other business priorities. Ensure proper budgeting without straining your finances.
  • Measurement: Determining the impact of your CSR initiatives can be puzzling. Implement systems that accurately track outcomes against objectives.
  • Long-Term Commitment: CSR is not a one-off project. Keep in mind that it requires continual investment and reevaluation.

Key Takeaway : Juggling these elements requires patience and adaptability. Effective CSR is an ongoing process that evolves with your company’s growth and societal changes.

Demystifying the Concept of Social Responsibility

Social responsibility suggests that individuals and companies must act in their environment’s and society’s best interests. It’s about contributing positively and ethically to the world, not harming the community and consumers interacting with it.

For Individuals:

  • Conscious Choices : You might make decisions that reduce your environmental footprint , such as recycling or volunteering in local community initiatives .
  • Ethical Actions: Acting with integrity in all facets of life reinforces a socially responsible society.

For Companies:

  • Sustainable Practices: Adopting methods that don’t deplete natural resources .
  • Community Involvement: Engaging in philanthropy and supporting local endeavors.

In the modern world, businesses are expected to go beyond profit-making. They should consider the impact of their actions on the:

  • Environment: Preserving natural resources.
  • Society: Addressing societal issues like inequality and education.
  • Consumers: Ensuring products and practices don’t harm consumers.

Key Takeaway: Your choices matter. Whether running a company or choosing which products to buy, your actions have ripples across society and the environment. Practicing social responsibility means living in a way that enriches the world around you.

How Businesses Benefit from Embracing Social Responsibility

When your business takes on social responsibility, it reaps multiple rewards beyond just feeling good about contributing to society. Let’s explore how this approach benefits businesses.

  • Profit : Customers often pay a premium for products from socially responsible companies. By addressing societal concerns, your business can attract customers willing to support a company that reflects their values, potentially increasing your sales and profit margins.
  • Competitive Edge : Embracing social responsibility can set your business apart from competitors. In today’s market, a commitment to social good can be a significant differentiator, as customers are drawn toward brands that align with their principles.
  • Reputation : A strong reputation is a cornerstone of business success. When you show genuine concern for social issues, it enhances your brand’s image. People remember and talk about businesses that do good, leading to positive word of mouth and enhanced public relations.
  • Customer Loyalty : People develop an emotional connection to brands that stand for something positive. This bond can turn casual buyers into loyal customers, who often exhibit greater tolerance during business mishaps because they support your broader mission.
  • Employee Engagement : Companies that value social responsibility see higher levels of employee motivation and satisfaction. Employees take pride in working for an organization with a purpose, leading to greater engagement, productivity, and retention.

A key takeaway : By embedding social responsibility into your business culture, you contribute positively to society and enjoy various operational benefits that can help your business thrive in the long term.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Decoded

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is a strategy where companies integrate social and environmental concerns into their business operations. This approach goes beyond what may be required by regulators or environmental protection groups. Instead, CSR is about what you do beyond legal obligations to impact society and the environment positively.

Key Elements of CSR:

  • Policies: Your company sets up These rules and guidelines to govern its CSR efforts.
  • System: The organized framework that tracks and ensures these policies are in place and functioning.

Benefits of Strong CSR for a Company:

  • Attracts Investors : Those who are interested in immediate profits and sustainable growth.
  • Enhances Shareholder Trust: Ethical decisions can increase shareholders’ confidence in your company.
  • Improves Economic Performance: In the long term, CSR can improve economic performance by fostering customer and community loyalty.

Practical Impact of CSR:

  • On Well-being: Initiatives can include offering better employee benefits, engaging in fair trade practices, or volunteering in your community.
  • Economic Impact: Companies often find that when they operate responsibly, they reduce costs through efficiency and improve their brand image.

Your role in CSR can lead to a healthier corporate image and foster a better relationship with the community and your shareholders. Adopting these responsibilities could be a strategic move for sustainable economic success.

Environmental Stewardship as a Pillar of CSR

Environmental Stewardship is a fundamental aspect of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), meaning your company’s dedication to managing your operations in an eco-friendly manner. This commitment can be seen in several areas:

  • Reducing your carbon footprint: Strive to lower emissions from your operations. This can be achieved through energy efficiency, adopting renewable energy sources, and improving supply chain logistics.
  • Prioritizing sustainability: Incorporate sustainable materials and processes into your products and services. This reduces your impact on nature and supports the well-being of future generations.

Consider these actions:

  • Waste management : Implement practices that reduce, reuse, and recycle materials to minimize landfill contributions.
  • Sustainable initiatives : Encourage green practices such as planting trees and investing in biodiversity, which can help counteract the impacts of climate change.

Remember, fostering an eco-conscious ethos within your company benefits the planet, enhances your public image, and aligns you with customers’ values.

Key Takeaway : By integrating environmental stewardship into your CSR efforts, you are taking actionable steps towards a more sustainable future, directly contributing to the health of our planet and aligning your business with broader societal values.

Marketing and the Role of CSR in Brand Image

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become a powerful tool in marketing strategies. When you align your brand’s values with social issues, you create a stronger connection with your customers. Let’s unwrap how CSR shapes brand image.

Understanding CSR : It involves your company taking responsibility for its effects on environmental and social well-being. This commitment can range from direct charitable activities to how you conduct your business.

  • Boosts your brand’s reputation.
  • It makes your company more relatable to your audience.

Marketing Benefits :

  • Customer Loyalty : Customers are likelier to stick with brands that demonstrate social responsibility.
  • Differentiation : If your products are similar to those of competitors, CSR can distinguish your brand.

Brand Image Evolution :

  • People often buy from brands they respect. Your CSR practices can foster a positive brand image, influencing purchase decisions.

Engaging with Social Issues :

  • Use social media to interact and start conversations.
  • Show genuine concern rather than leveraging issues for profit.

Interaction and Conversation :

  • Involve your customers in your CSR activities. This interaction can create a sense of community.
  • Transparency is key. Keep your audience informed about your CSR initiatives and progress.

Key Takeaway : Integrating CSR into your marketing strategy is not just good for society—it strengthens your connection with customers, enhances your reputation, and sets your brand apart. Remember, actions speak louder than words, so let your company’s genuine efforts shine.

Aligning Profit with Purpose: Social Responsibility and Business Success

In the competitive marketplace, aligning your business’s profit motives with a sense of social responsibility is an admirable and intelligent strategy. Integrating the triple bottom line—people, planet, profit—into your business model sets the stage for sustainable success.

Business Model with a Conscience

  • Begin by redefining your business model to balance financial goals with social impact.
  • Embed social objectives into your company’s DNA to forge a stronger brand connection.

Quality Matters Quality isn’t just about your product or service; it’s about the entire experience you deliver, including how ethically you operate. Investing in quality increases customer loyalty and your business’s longevity.

Triple Bottom Line Approach

  • People: Fair labor practices and community engagement can draw socially conscious consumers.
  • Planet: Eco-friendly operations can tap into government incentives and improve your brand image.
  • Profit: Long-term profits stem from customer retention and operational efficiencies.

Innovation Leads to Success Innovation isn’t limited to technology; it includes new ways of doing business that prioritize sustainability and ethics.

Strategies for Responsible Profits

  • Collaborate with stakeholders to find opportunities for social engagement.
  • Use sustainable materials to attract a growing eco-aware consumer base.

Key Takeaway: When you marry your profit goals with a vital purpose, you invest in your business’s future and contribute to a better world. Remembering your values can inspire your team, captivate your customers, and solidify your market position.

Frequently Asked Questions

Social responsibility is a guiding principle that individuals and organizations adopt to impact society positively. This FAQ section unpacks how this plays out in real-world scenarios.

How can individuals contribute to social responsibility in everyday life?

You can drive change daily by making ethical choices and volunteering. Whether reducing waste by recycling or helping at a local charity, your actions contribute to a larger social good.

Key takeaway: Small, consistent actions by individuals create a ripple effect in promoting social responsibility.

What are the various types of social responsibility that organizations can engage in?

Organizations can partake in a multitude of social responsibilities, including:

  • Environmental efforts: Implementing green policies to reduce carbon footprints.
  • Philanthropy: Donating funds to various causes and charities.
  • Ethical labor practices: Ensuring fair treatment and good working conditions for employees.

Key takeaway: A well-rounded approach to social responsibility can cover multiple aspects, from the environment to labor ethics.

Can you give some examples of how businesses integrate social responsibility into their operations?

Businesses can weave social responsibility into their core operations by:

  • Offering products made from sustainable materials.
  • Ensuring fair trade practices in their supply chain.
  • Building community relations programs that address local issues.

Key takeaway: Integrating social responsibility into daily business operations often creates a sustainable and positive brand image.

In what ways can students demonstrate social responsibility at educational institutions?

As a student, you can demonstrate social responsibility by:

  • Participating in service-learning projects that address community needs.
  • Engaging in campus clubs that promote sustainability and ethical practices.

Key takeaway: Students have unique opportunities to blend learning with civic engagement, fostering a social responsibility mindset in an educational environment.

How does social responsibility relate to ethical practices within a community or society?

Social responsibility is intertwined with ethics, which involves doing what suits the community and society. This means operating with honesty, integrity, and respect for others’ rights and well-being.

Key takeaway: Ethical practices are the foundation of social responsibility, reflecting personal and organizational integrity.

What are some synonyms or alternative phrases for ‘social responsibility’ that convey the same concept?

Alternative phrases for ‘social responsibility’ include:

  • Corporate citizenship
  • Sustainable business practices
  • Ethical performance

Key takeaway: These alternatives underscore the commitment of individuals and businesses to the welfare of society and the environment.

Jacob Maslow

Start Earning Passively: The Best Way to Begin Affiliate Marketing

Affordable psychic insights: balancing cost and quality.

what is the meaning of social and environmental responsibility essay

  • Get involved


Social and environmental sustainability in undp.

UNDP is committed to ensuring that our programming and operations are socially and environmentally sustainable.

Sustainable Programme and project management

UNDP recognizes that social and environmental sustainability are fundamental to the achievement of sustainable development outcomes, and therefore must be fully integrated into our Programmes and Projects.  To ensure this we have the following key policies, procedures and accountability mechanisms in place to underpin our support to countries:

  • Social and Environmental Standards  for UNDP Programmes and Projects  
  • Project-level Social and Environmental Screening Procedure  
  • Accountability Mechanism with two key functions: 1.  A Stakeholder Response Mechanism that ensures individuals, peoples, and communities affected by UNDP projects have access to appropriate procedures for hearing and addressing project-related grievances. 2.  A Compliance Review process to respond to claims that UNDP is not in compliance with UNDP’s social and environmental policies.

Environmentally sustainable operations

As a global leader in the fight against climate change, UNDP is committed to being green, sustainable, and just. UNDP has been climate neutral in its global operations since 2015 and has made an ambitious commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 50% by 2050 through the Greening UNDP Moonshot. Read more ...

Sustainable procurement

To help countries achieve the simultaneous eradication of poverty and significant reduction of inequalities and exclusion, while at the same time address the issues of climate change, UNDP makes a shift to more sustainable production and consumption practices. Sustainable procurement means making sure that the products and services UNDP buys are as sustainable as possible, with the lowest environmental impact and most positive social results. Procurement, therefore, plays a key role in contributing to sustainable development.

Please find more information on the UNDP Procurement Website .

Related resources

  • Framework for Advancing Environmental and Social Sustainability in the UN System
  • UN Greening the Blue

Explore more

Undp social and environmental standards.

The revised Social and Environmental Standards (SES) came into effect on 1 January 2021 . The SES underpin UNDP's commitment to mainstream social and environmental sustainability in our Programmes and Projects to support sustainable development.

The SES are an integral component of UNDP’s quality assurance and risk management approach to programming. This includes our  Social and Environmental Screening Procedure .

Key Elements of the UNDP's Social and Environmental Standards include: 

Part A: Programming Principles: 

  • Leave No One Behind 
  • Human Rights 
  • Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment 
  • Sustainability and Resilience 
  • Accountability 

Part B: Project-Level Standards:

  • Standard 1: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Natural Resource Management
  • Standard 2: Climate Change and Disaster Risks 
  • Standard 3: Community Health, Safety and Security 
  • Standard 4: Cultural Heritage 
  • Standard 5: Displacement and Resettlement 
  • Standard 6: Indigenous Peoples
  • Standard 7: Labour and Working Conditions
  • Standard 8: Pollution Prevention and Resource Efficiency 

Part C: Social and Environmental Management System Requirements:

  • Quality Assurance and Risk Management 
  • Screening and Categorization 
  • Assessment and Management 
  • Stakeholder Engagement and Response Mechanism 
  • Access to Information 
  • Monitoring, Reporting and Compliance 

UNDP Social and Environmental Standards Cover Image

UNDP's Social and Environmental Screening Procedure (SESP)

Screening and categorization of projects is one of the key requirements of the Social and Environmental Standards (SES) . 

In this regard, the objectives of UNDP's Social and Environmental Screening Procedure (SESP) are to:

  • Integrate the SES Programming Principles in order to maximize social and environmental opportunities and benefits and strengthen social and environmental sustainability; 
  • Identify potential social and environmental risks and their significance; 
  • Determine the project's risk category (Low, Moderate, Substantial, High); and, 
  • Determine the level of social and environmental assessment and management required to address potential risks and impacts.


News from the Columbia Climate School

The Role of Individual Responsibility in the Transition to Environmental Sustainability

Steve Cohen

We New Yorkers live in a city that is on a gradual transition toward environmental sustainability, but we are a long way from the place we need to end up. A circular economy where there is no waste and where all material outputs become inputs is well beyond our technological and organizational capacity today. But that does not mean we shouldn’t think about how to get from here to there. Much of the work in building environmental sustainability requires the development of systems that enable us to live our lives as we wish while damaging the planet as little as possible. Large-scale institutions are needed to manage sewage treatment and drinking water, to develop renewable energy and build a modern energy grid. Government policy is needed to ensure the conservation of forests, oceans, and biodiversity. Pandemic avoidance requires global, national and local systems of public health. Climate change mitigation and adaptation also require collective action. What then can individuals do?

As individuals, we make choices about our own activities and inevitably, they involve choices about resource consumption. I see little value in criticizing people who fly on airplanes to travel to global climate conferences. (I assume you do remember airplanes and conferences, don’t you?) But I see great value in considering the importance of your attendance at the conference and asking if the trip is an indulgence or if you will have an important opportunity to learn and teach. This year has taught us how to attend events virtually. There is little question that live presence at an event enables a type of communication that can’t be achieved virtually. Many times, you will judge that the financial and environmental cost of the trip is far outweighed by the benefits. Those are the times you should travel. My argument here is that it is the thought process, the analysis of environmental costs and benefits, that is at the heart of an individual’s responsibility for environmental sustainability. Individuals are responsible for thinking about their impact on the environment and, when possible, minimize the damage they do to the planet.

Everyone needs to turn on the lights at night, start the shower in the morning, turn on the air conditioning and possibly drive somewhere on Mother’s Day. I would never argue that you should give up these forms of consumption. Instead, I believe we should all pay attention to the resources we use and the impact it has. We are responsible for that thought process and the related analysis of how we, as individuals, might accomplish the same ends with less environmentally damaging means.

Some say that the fixation on individual responsibility is a distraction from the more important task of compelling government and major institutions to implement systemic change. This perspective was forcefully argued in 2019 in The Guardian by Professor Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. According to Professor Levermann:

“Personal sacrifice alone cannot be the solution to tackling the climate crisis. There’s no other area in which the individual is held so responsible for what’s going wrong. And it’s true: people drive too much, eat too much meat, and fly too often. But reaching zero emissions requires very fundamental changes. Individual sacrifice alone will not bring us to zero. It can be achieved only by real structural change; by a new industrial revolution.   Looking for solutions to the climate crisis in individual responsibilities and actions risks obstructing this. It suggests that all we have to do is pull ourselves together over the next 30 years and save energy, walk, skip holidays abroad, and simply ‘do without.’ But these demands for individual action paralyse people, thereby preventing the large-scale change we so urgently need.”

Perhaps, but I do not see it that way. I consider individual responsibility and the thought process and value shift that stimulates individual action as the foundation of the social learning process required for effective collective action. In other words, individual change and collective system-level change are interconnected. The fact is that on a planet of nearly 8 billion people, it is too late for many of us to get back to the land and live as one with nature. There’s too many of us and not enough nature. There is an absolute limit to our ability as individuals to reduce our impact on the planet. Therefore, system-level change is absolutely needed. But system change requires individuals to understand the need for change along with a well-understood definition of the problem. The cognitive dissonance of identifying a problem but never acting on it is difficult to live with. If you see a poor child on the street begging for food, you can provide that child with food and money while continuing to support public policy that addresses the child poverty issue at the systems level. In fact, the emotional impact of that child’s face may well provide the drive that leads you to fight harder for the policy that would prevent that child from needing to beg. We learn by example, and vivid experiences and cases can lead to transformative systemic change.

While I consider individual and collective responsibility connected, without collective systems and infrastructure supporting environmental sustainability, there are distinct limits to what individual action can achieve. That is why I see no value in shaming individuals for consuming fossil fuels, eating meat, or buying a child a Mylar birthday balloon. I believe an attitude of moral superiority is particularly destructive in any effort to build the political support needed for systemic change.

As my mentor, the late Professor Lester Milbrath, often argued, the only way to save the planet is through social learning that would enable us to “learn our way to a sustainable society.” He made this argument in his pathbreaking work: Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out . In Milbrath’s view, the key was to understand environmental perceptions and values and to build on those values and perceptions to change both individual behavior and the institutions their politics generated. To Milbrath, the human effort to dominate nature had worked too well, and a new approach was needed. As he observed in Envisioning a Sustainable Society :

“Learning how to reason together about values is crucial to saving our species. As a society we have to learn better how to learn, I call it social learning; it is the dynamic for change that could lead us to a new kind of society that will not destroy itself from its own excess.”

My view is that one method to pursue social learning is learning by doing — in other words by encouraging the individual behaviors we might each take to reduce our environmental impact. Those behaviors remind us to think about the planet’s wellbeing along with our own. They reinforce and remind us and as they become habit, they impact our values and our shared understanding of how the world works.

There is, therefore, no tradeoff between individual and collective responsibility for protecting the environment unless we insist on creating one. Additionally, in a world of extreme levels of income inequality, wealthy people who have given up eating meat have the resources to consume alternative sources of nourishment. They do not occupy the moral high ground criticizing an impoverished parent proudly serving meat to their hungry child. In our complex world, we should mistrust simple answers and instead work hard to understand the varied cultures, values and perceptions that can contribute to the transition to an environmentally sustainable global economy. The path to environmental sustainability is long and winding and will require decades of listening and learning from each other.

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Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

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Steve, I appreciate your perspective on individual responsibility. I am developing a similar position and submitted an “OpEd” piece to Times about a month ago but alas it didn’t get published. I would like to share and develop the conversation with you so please reach out.

callie narum

What are the responsibilities of individuals, governments and the international community in helping people have access to water?

karen kramer

While this highly educated society continues the GDP rat race and decimating all other patterns that create balance in the world we live in, here’s a little story of obvious stupidity for fun and profit. In 1975 my wife and I after several years of college chose to listen to scientists’ warnings about continued expansionism economically. We simplified our lives and did without things like electricity, fancy new vehicles and useless bling. We did without as a plausible direction for a template of living lightly and securing a viable future for more than just humans. We endured countless slurs ( tree huggers, eco-terrorists, hippies,) and were subjected to verbal and realistic abuse . Now at 72 and 68 we are wondering where the hell were the rest of you? Read the book “Small is Beautiful ” to see the wrongheaded direction your politicians and some clergy and certainly all greedy vulture capitalist have led the general public. I have no patience for obvious stupidity .Yeah, we were WOKE long before most people and feel no compulsion to be apologetic as all of you are to blame if you help continue the narrative of GDP unlimited growth and the population explosion. nats remark

Edalyn Nebulous

“perhaps, but i do not see it that way” sorry but that kinda just means your guile is weak and you’re extremely credulous and succeptable to propeganda, dunno what to tell ya bud but this perspective is a total nothingburger. Of Course we must needs rely on some great measure of personal choice here, but if my choices are: Waste, Waste, Out of my Budget well i dont REALLY have a choice then Do I? which means that for the majority of americans there is no ethical choice list they can follow to fix the problem, only by compelling legislation can those choices be made available to them.

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Essay on Social Responsibility

Social responsibility is a term that has been used in different contexts, including the economy, education, politics , and religion. Social responsibility is challenging because it encompasses so many aspects, and there is no single definition of social responsibility. In simple words, social responsibility is the responsibility of an individual to act in a way that promotes social well-being. This means that a person has a sense of obligation to society and sacrifices for the good of others. BYJU’S essay on social responsibility explains the importance of being a socially responsible citizen.

A society’s responsibility to the individuals in that society can be seen through the various social programmes and laws. Governments try to create a better world for their citizens, so they implement various social programmes like welfare, tax assistance, and unemployment benefits. Laws are also crucial to a society because they enforce practical actions by its citizens and punish harmful actions. Now, let us understand the significance of social responsibility by reading a short essay on social responsibility.

Essay on Social Responsibility

Importance of Social Responsibility

BYJU’S essay on social responsibility highlights the importance of doing good deeds for society. The short essay lists different ways people can contribute to social responsibility, such as donating time and money to charities and giving back by visiting places like hospitals or schools. This essay discusses how companies can support specific causes and how people can be actively involved in volunteering and organisations to help humanitarian efforts.

Social responsibility is essential in many aspects of life. It helps to bring people together and also promotes respect for others. Social responsibility can be seen in how you treat other people, behave outside of work, and contribute to the world around you. In addition, there are many ways to be responsible for the protection of the environment, and recycling is one way. It is crucial to recycle materials to conserve resources, create less pollution, and protect the natural environment.

Society is constantly changing, and the way people live their lives may also vary. It is crucial to keep up with new technology so that it doesn’t negatively impact everyone else. Social responsibility is key to making sure that society is prosperous. For example, social media has created a platform for people to share their experiences and insights with other people. If a company were going to develop a new product or service, it would be beneficial for them to survey people about what they think about the idea before implementing it because prior knowledge can positively impact future decisions.

Social responsibility is essential because it creates a sense of responsibility to the environment . It can lead to greater trust among members of society. Another reason is that companies could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage if they do not ensure their practices are socially responsible. Moreover, companies help people in need through money, time, and clothing, which is a great way to showcase social responsibility.

Being socially responsible is a great responsibility of every human being, and we have briefly explained this in the short essay on social responsibility. Moreover, being socially responsible helps people upgrade the environment and society. For more essays, click on BYJU’S kids learning activities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does being socially responsible help in protecting the environment.

Yes. Being socially responsible helps in protecting the environment.

Why should we be socially responsible?

We should be socially responsible because it is the right thing to upgrade society and the environment. Another reason is to help those in need because when more people have jobs, the economy can thrive, and people will have more opportunities.

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Environmental Responsibility

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what is the meaning of social and environmental responsibility essay

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Corporate environmentalism ; Corporate social responsibility ; Corporate sustainability ; Environmental law ; Environmental standards ; Sustainability.

Environmental responsibility is the idea that business organizations have an obligation to consider their impact on the natural environment. This obligation may be found in either the laws of the relevant jurisdiction(s) where they operate or in a broader moral obligation as an actor in society. The impact may be as a result of business consumables, production processes, or final outputs. Thus, businesses may have an environmental responsibility with respect to decisions about inputs, including sourcing, process choices, which may involve more or lesser impacts and discharges into the natural environment, and the environmental impacts of the specific goods or services they are supplying.

Environmental responsibilities are found in various hard and soft law instruments. Legal environmental responsibilities can be litigated...

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Sheehy, B. (2023). Environmental Responsibility. In: Idowu, S., Schmidpeter, R., Capaldi, N., Zu, L., Del Baldo, M., Abreu, R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Sustainable Management. Springer, Cham.

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Corporate social responsibility research: the importance of context

  • Carol A. Tilt 1  

International Journal of Corporate Social Responsibility volume  1 , Article number:  2 ( 2016 ) Cite this article

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There has, in recent times, been an increasing interest in understanding corporate social (and environmental) responsibility (CSR) and, in particular, CSR reporting in developing countries. However, many of these studies fail to investigate fully the contextual factors that influence CSR and reporting in those countries, preferring to rely on theories and hypotheses developed from studies undertaken in the West, particularly the US, UK and Australasia.

It may be argued that this is appropriate as many emerging economies are experiencing growth and moving towards having a more market-based orientation. Notwithstanding this, a large number of these countries have an entirely different socio-political environment, with different political regimes, legal systems and cultural influences. These factors have a significant effect on the applicability of theories such as stakeholder theory, legitimacy theory and accountability theory, which are commonly used to explain the phenomenon of reporting.

In State Capitalist countries, such as China, an important influence on companies is the political ideology that underpins the nation’s government. The nature and impact of ideology and hegemony in China has been under-studied and, therefore, investigating how the ideology, and competing forces that may mitigate its influence, manifest themselves in Chinese reporting are essential. In the Middle East, countries such as Saudi Arabia have no free press, are ruled by a royal family, have a market dominated by the oil industry, and potential religious influences. Such socio-cultural differences mean societies develop different understandings of concepts such as sustainability and social responsibility. Finally, countries such as Sri Lanka have some similarities to other developing countries, but their economy is set against a background of a recent civil war – operating in a post-conflict economy is a factor rarely considered in social and environmental disclosure, yet has important influence on policy in these areas.

This paper discusses three contextual issues that warrant more and improved consideration in CSR research, with particular emphasis on CSR reporting research.

More and more corporations worldwide are involved in corporate social responsibility activities, and as a result are providing more social and environmental information to the public. Following from this, CSR disclosure, or reporting, has become one of the major fields of investigation by accounting scholars (Deegan 2009 ; Mathews 1997 ; Tilt 2001 ). Research that considers both CSR activity and CSR reporting has traditionally focused on companies in more developed economies, predominantly the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand (Burritt and Schaltegger 2010 ; Frost et al. 2005 ; Gray 2006 ; Gurvitsh and Sidorova 2012 ; Othman and Ameer 2009 ; Patten 2002 ; Sahay 2004 ), but recently there has been increasing interest in understanding the phenomenon in developing countries particularly as they experience growth and move towards a more capitalist orientation (Sumiani et al. 2007 ). Of the research that does exist, a number of papers suggest that ‘country’ is a determinant for CSR involvement and for the level of disclosure, but do not go much further.

Many of the studies of developing countries however, choose a framework for their investigation based on those shown to be meaningful for explaining disclosure in developed, capitalist economies. That is, they fail to investigate fully the contextual factors that influence firms and their reporting in those countries that have a different social, political, legal and/or cultural context.

It may be argued that this is appropriate as many emerging economies are experiencing growth and moving towards having a more market-based orientation. However, this is rarely acknowledged or questioned in these papers. Yet, it is reasonable to suggest that these factors have a significant effect on the applicability of theories such as stakeholder theory, legitimacy theory and accountability theory, which are commonly used to explain the phenomenon of reporting.

The majority of the world’s population lives in developing countries and each country experiences its own unique social, political and environmental issues (United Nations 2013 ). These countries are in the process of industrialisation and are often characterised by unstable governments, higher levels of unemployment, limited technological capacity, unequal distribution of income, unreliable water supplies and underutilised factors of production. As a result of rapid industrial development, policies are pursued that aim to attract greater foreign investment, and the investors are often keen to start benefitting from fiscal incentives and cheap labour. While these strategies make economic sense, they have adverse social and environmental effects, including the use of child labour, low or unpaid wages, unequal career opportunities, occupational health and safety concerns, and increased pollution.

In a review of the literature on determinants of CSR reporting (Morhardt 2010 ), reports that research on the impact of different variables in different regions is inconclusive due to the lack of enough studies. Factors that may influence CSR disclosure practices fall broadly into internal and external (Fifka 2013 ; Morhardt 2010 ), but are commonly classified further as (Adams 2002 : p224):

Corporate characteristics, such as size, industry group, financial/economic performance and share trading volume, price and risk;

General contextual factors, such as country of origin, time, specific events, media pressure, stakeholders and social, political, cultural and economic context; and

Internal contextual factors, including different aspects of corporate governance.

While CSR reporting has been studied by a large number of scholars, only a few fall into the second of the categories above, and consider context in detail. This is particularly relevant when considering developing countries. A few papers have specifically reviewed studies on developing countries. For example, (Belal and Momin 2009 ) categorise the work on developing countries into three groups: studies of the volume or extent of reporting; studies of the perceptions of CSR reporting by managers; and studies of the perception of CSR reporting by stakeholders. In all the studies reviewed there is little discussion of the context, other than a description of the country, and no real thought about the theoretical assumptions being made.

This paper presents a discussion of the different contextual issues or factors that show some evidence or potential to influence CSR and reporting in developing countries. It focusses on three specific issues and provides a research agenda for future consideration of the influence of context in CSR reporting research. The paper is structured as follows. The next section introduces some broad contextual factors that warrant consideration in the literature on CSR reporting. Next, three specific contextual issues are examined: the role of political ideology and hegemony; the influence of cultural understandings; and the impact of historical economic context. Finally, by way of conclusion, some recommended areas for further research are suggested.

Contextual considerations

Adams ( 2002 ) talks about the social, political, cultural and economic context, so some consideration of what this might mean is needed as each of these concepts themselves cover a variety of aspects, and indeed overlap. While papers may talk about the ‘social context’ in which the companies being examined operate, this is not well defined and little consideration is given to what this means. Some things that could be more explicitly considered include, inter alia : the role of the press; the status of women; the legal/justice system; the level of corruption; the level of government control, cultural understandings; and so on. This paper chooses to highlight three of these areas, and these are discussed briefly below in broad terms, followed by a discussion of some specific aspects of each identified as providing fertile grounds for future research.

Political system

Assumptions are often made about capitalist systems, whether explicit or implicit, as the vast majority of work on CSR reporting has been done in the Western context. However, there is little research looking at CSR reporting in socialist or communist countries. Some work has been undertaken on China (Dong et al. 2014 ; Gao 2011 ; Situ and Tilt 2012 ), but this work often applies the same conceptual frameworks as Western studies. What about the influence of ideology, and hegemony?

Sociocultural environment

Human beings have “distinctive cultural (learned) characteristics, histories and responses to their environment” and the term ‘sociocultural’ is commonly used in anthropological research to describe these and the “interactions and processes” that this involves (Garbarino 1983 : p1). Some general studies of culture and CSR using Hofstede exist (Silvia and Belen 2013 ), but an in-depth analysis of different understandings and conceptions of terms such as CSR as a result of sociocultural influences is lacking. The work that does examine specific factors often suggests that the Western concept of CSR does not fit these contexts (Wang and Juslin 2009 ).

The majority of work that considers sociocultural factors has looked mainly at religious aspects of CSR, most commonly by reviewing reporting by Islamic organisation, such as Islamic banks (Maali et al. 2006 ; Siwar and Hossain 2009 ; Sudarma et al. 2010 ). The teachings of many religions focus on social responsibility, the relationship with the natural environment, treatment of others, fairness, justice, etc., so there is a natural expectation that religion-based organisations may be more likely to engage in CSR and CSR reporting. A more nuanced consideration of how this manifests itself in different societies would improve understanding of the drivers and motivations of these activities. Similarly, other sociocultural factors, such as national identity, values, social organisation and language, could be incorporated.

Stage of development

The emerging literature on CSR reporting outside the Western world examines countries that are ‘developing’ (Belal and Momin 2009 ; Momin and Parker 2013 ), but little depth is included about where they are in their development journey and how the potential conflict between economic and social goals impacts CSR or CSR reporting. Rostow’s ( 1962 ) Stages of Economic Growth model suggests there are five stages (traditional society, preconditions for take-off, take-off, drive to maturity, and age of high or mass consumption), yet most literature on CSR classifies countries only into developed or developing. The ‘developing’ classification potentially includes countries that are in Rostow’s first, second or third stage which may have an impact on their response to CSR issues. In addition to economic variables however, the United Nations also produces a Human Development Index (HDI) which considers life expectancy, education and income to measure how social, as well as economic, development (UNDP 2015 ). Both these concepts are important for consideration of CSR.

Importantly, consideration of just one or two aspects of these three broader contextual issues may result in misinterpretation of the results. Often these things interact, for example, social issues often cross over with cultural and religious impacts, or even with political influence where the regime is more hegemonic. It is thus important to consider, or at least acknowledge, the holistic nature of the context of the phenomenon being examined.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss all of the issues raised here although this would be an important part of a larger research program. Therefore, three particular contextual issues, and three specific contexts, are the focus of this paper: the role of political ideology and hegemony (China); the influence of cultural understandings (Middle East); and the impact of historical economic context (Sri Lanka).

Politics, ideology and state control

Ideology is a set of common beliefs that are shared by a group of people, and is “the fundamental social beliefs that organize and control the social representations of groups and their members” (Van Dijk 2009 : p78). Countries such as China provide a fertile research setting to examine the influence of ideology, and hegemonic approaches of influencing CSR, which have been missing from most CSR research in the region.

The Chinese political model has some unique characteristics. Among these is the dominance of ‘the party state’, which exercises control in different forms over most aspects of the economy that is unmatched when compared to other state capitalist economies. Political leaders use a variety of tools (Bremmer 2010 ) and it is the combination of three particular tools that sets apart the Chinese system: the exercise of control as a dominant shareholder, the ability to appoint key positions in major firms, and the means to influence decision-making via ideology. First, the party exerts shareholder power over state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Chinese SOEs play an instrumental role in society (Du and Wang 2013 ) and make up around 80 % of the stock market (Economist T 2012 ). As protecting the environment is a major part of the guiding ideology and the nation’s policy, SOEs are likely to be keen to provide CER. Second, the party exercises power over the appointment of the senior leadership in SOEs (Landry 2008 ). This has resulted in control as they are “cadres first and company men second. They care more about pleasing their party bosses than about the global market” (Economist T 2012 : p6). Third, party control is exercised through ideology. The party has cells in most larger firms, whether private or state-owned, which influence business decisions made at board meetings. Given that China considers the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology as crucial this distinguishes it most significantly from other varieties of state capitalism that have a more liberal-democratic flavour.

There is some evidence that the first form of party control has been declining in recent times with the number of SOEs under the SASAC’s control halving over the last decade (Mattlin 2009 ). Similarly, since 1999, the share of SOEs in the economy has declined from 37 % to less than 5 %. This results in greater use of regulation and ideological hegemony to achieve its aims, yet most CSR research still uses state-ownership as a proxy for all types of state control.

Even after economic reform, ideology in China was still pervasive (Lieber 2013 ). Lieber ( 2013 ) argues that ideology is widely used to signal loyalty and the government is good at using ideology to “control and direct key vocabularies… (and) vague ideological language can create a climate of uncertainty thus increasing the range of a control regime” (Lieber 2013 : p346). However, the prevailing ideological themes in China are dynamic. In particular, most recently, new ideological themes have developed to respond to the changes in society. When economic reform began, “building up a socialist market economy with specific Chinese characteristics” was the guiding ideology (Zhang 2012 : p25). As such, economic growth was the country’s priority, but in 2005, “building up a harmonious society became the prevailing ideology” (and CSR is a key element of this resolution).

Ideology is used by the Chinese government to exert control over businesses. Traditionally, the government has “been considered a source of moral authority, official legitimacy and political stability…and …political language has been vested with an intrinsic instrumental value: its control represents the most suitable and effective way first to codify, and then widely convey, the orthodox state ideology” (Marinellin 2012 : p26). The language “developed and used by party officials … consists of ‘correct’ formulation, aims to teach the ‘enlarged masses’ how to speak and, how to think” (Marinellin 2012 : p26). The idea of the importance of a ‘Harmonious Society’ is the “re-contextualized discourse in response to the emergent issues in the changing social stratification order” (Zhang 2012 : p33). As a result, Chinese companies have been noticeably adopting the language of social concern and environmental protection.

It may therefore be suggested that CSR reporting in China is directly a response to the government’s ideological hegemony. However, the story is not as straightforward as it may first appear, for two reasons. First, despite a great deal of commitment to social and environmental regulation in China, implementation of these regulations has been limited. Second, as China enters a phase of continued economic development, Western influences may begin to have a moderating effect on the strength of the ideology.

The Chinese economy has grown rapidly in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) (World Bank 2016 ). The economic reforms that took place over the past decades were motivated substantially by the Chinese central government, and recent scholars have noted the positive role that ideology played in driving those reforms, notwithstanding that economists historically view ideology as “distorting… knowledge, judgment and decision making” (Lieber 2013 : p344).

With economic reform however, has come substantial environmental degradation which in turn has led to poor health outcomes for much of society generally. This led to a high level of commitment to environmental regulation in particular from as early as the 1990, followed by the release of even more rigorous regulations on environmental protection in the 2000s. However, despite the high commitment made by the Chinese central government, implementation of these policies is quite poor (Bina 2010 ). In terms of environmental regulation, for example, the implementation problems stem from a number of areas, including: the position of environmental protection agencies in the political framework; conflict between central and local governments; and supervision issues. The system of supervision of local environmental departments is a key problem (Bina 2010 ). When an environmental department is set up in the central government, corresponding environmental departments are set up in local governments. Ideally, these local departments should be agencies of the central department, deliver the central environmental department’s strategies, and supervise local environmental protection implementation. In reality, the local environmental departments are subservient to the local rather than central governments. All their financial support and staff appointments come from local governments. Therefore, rather than supervising local environmental protection implementation, the local environmental departments become “rubber stamps” for local governments (Zheng 2010 ). Therefore, it is unlikely that there will be efficient enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies at the local level (Bina 2010 ; Zheng 2010 ).

Finally, as China heads towards a market economy, government intervention becomes a policy choice, and markets function as a tool of national interest (Zhao 2011 ). However, as Chinese firms become more involved with foreign trading partners and markets, their reporting activity is also influenced by foreign and global organisations, leading to potential tension between demonstrating commitment to state ideological goals and meeting the requirements of global stakeholders.

Given the complexity of the context, research into CSR reporting in China needs to take into account the specific aspects of Chinese politics and culture in order to provide a nuanced understanding, and ultimately an improvement, of CSR reporting activities. However, a review done of the literature on CSR in by Chinese showed that it is very descriptive with little depth and much of the CSR literature is conceptual, descriptive, or argumentative in nature (Guan and Noronha 2013 ). The authors noted proper research methodologies are not systematically applied in some studies, and supporting theories are lacking. In the non-Chinese studies on China, there is also a predominance of papers on determinants and volume of reporting (Situ and Tilt 2012 ), with very few considering broader contextual factors, other than a few that look at specific cultural attributes (e.g., Rowe & Guthrie 2009 ).

Sociocultural understandings

Notwithstanding a move towards a market orientation of many developing countries, such as in China as outlined above, conceptions of CSR by management of companies in these countries may be quite different to those in the West (Wang and Juslin 2009 ). These differing conceptions may be a result of differing values and attitudes, language, religion or identity. Even specific elements of CSR are conceived of differently, for example in China, the main understanding of sustainability is in terms of environmental protection (Situ et al. 2013 , 2015 ). These socioculturally derived understandings are inevitably reflected in their reporting.

In another example, in the Middle East, the predominant perception of CSR is that it simply means philanthropic donations. In this region, the issue of social responsibility is relatively new, and as such the number of studies of CSR and CSR reporting in the Gulf region is growing (Al-Khatar and Naser 2003 ; AlNaimi et al. 2012 ; Emtairah et al. 2009 ; Mandurah et al. 2012 ; Marios and Tor 2007 ; Minnee et al. 2013 ; Nalband and Al-Amri 2013 ; Naser et al. 2006 ; Naser and Hassan 2013 ; Qasim et al. 2011 ; Sangeetha and Pria 2012 ). Many of these studies do not consider the cultural context to a very great extent as the research is emerging and focusses on perceptions. For example, Mandurah et al. ( 2012 ) and Emtairah et al. ( 2009 ) explored managerial perceptions of the concept of CSR in Saudi Arabia and found that managers are aware of the concept, but there is little connection between the managerial level perceptions and firms’ workforce. The authors describe CSR as being in its infancy phase, which limits the understanding of the concept to the view that CSR simply means being philanthropic. This indicates a different, and perhaps less developed, understanding of the concept in the region compared with the West, but the reasons for this, and the consequences for CSR reporting, are under-explored. Some authors suggest the narrow use of the term is because of the religious obligations towards society, (Visser 2008 ). There is only minimal evidence of any CSR practices other than philanthropy-based or any strategic approaches to CSR for long-term benefits (Visser 2008 ), but the trend is increasing and the forms that philanthropy takes is expanding.

It has also been argued that politics plays a significant role in increasing the awareness of CSR in the Arab world. Avina ( 2013 ) suggests that the perception of CSR in the Middle East changed after the Arab spring event, for both local and international firms. The term CSR more than a decade ago had little meaning to the public (Visser 2008 ) but since the Arab spring, the sense of social responsibility among civil society and the corporate sector has increased Avina 2013 ). Firms realised that they play a role in social responsibility, not just governments, and recognised that CSR should go beyond just donations to charitable causes (Avina 2013 ). Ronnegard ( 2013 ), however, predicts that CSR in the Middle East will not mimic the Western concept because of the strong influence of culture and religion in the region. Moreover, the influence of stakeholders in the Middle East is considered to be limited due to there being a lack of free press, few lobby groups and the different cultural attributes of employees and consumers. Some studies in Gulf countries have however, suggested that stakeholders, such as government and charitable organisations, may have an impact on firms’ behaviour (Emtairah et al. 2009 ; Naser et al. 2006 ). Others suggest that CSR may have developed as a concept due to the increase of foreign direct investment into Arab countries, the trend of shifting family and government owned firms into the public domain, and the globalisation of the region’s large national firms.

From the limited studies that have been undertaken, there is evidence of CSR reporting by Gulf country companies, with human resources and community involvement being the dominant themes in may reports Abu-Baker and Naser 2000 ). Thus, understanding of motivations for CSR reporting is not yet well developed and few existing studies consider the different level of stakeholder pressure in the region. This suggests that more research is needed on the formation of notions of CSR within specific contexts. This region is of particular interest because, according to the Human Development Report (HDI 2013 ), countries in the region are classified as high, or very high, in human development. That is, they are not only trying to develop and improve their economy, but are also trying to improve the quality of life of their citizens (Ramady 2010 ). The overall outlook of these countries indicates that they are performing well, however, Fadaak ( 2010 ) notes that identifying poverty lines is a challenge because of a lack of a clear definition of poverty in the region. There are no official reports considering poverty or other social problems and no GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries were found in the list of the World Bank Database in relation to the poverty rate.

Similarly, in other developing countries the importance of local economic, cultural, and religious factors that shape the business environment, and understandings of charity and philanthropy, need to be taken into account. Empirical work in this area is lacking (Lund-Thomsen et al. 2016 ). In Sri Lanka, for example, “the most common arguments used to ‘sell’ the business case for CSR and CP [Corporate Philanthropy], for example an improved brand image, increased market or customer share, employee retention, mitigated regulatory risks, and reduced tax burden, are considered mostly irrelevant” (Global Insights 2013 : p1). Business leaders engage in CSR for a range of business, humanitarian, social, religious, and political reasons. Key amongst them is a belief that ‘giving back’ to society discharges religious obligations to the poor, and an awareness that being seen to contribute to national development goals is important (Global Insights 2013 ). Hence, the conception of CSR in this region is culturally determined, but also shaped by the economic environment.

  • Economic development

As well as government control, culture and political factors, the stage of economic development a country is in is also an important contextual factor that may impact CSR reporting. In China, as discussed above, the drive for economic reform led directly to environmental impacts which needed to be addressed. A number of other developing countries have been examined for their reporting on CSR issues, particularly from the Asian region (Andrew et al. 1989 ; Elijido-Ten et al. 2010 ), India (Mishra and Suar 2010 ; Raman 2006 ; Sahay 2004 ), and Bangladesh (Belal and Owen 2007 ; Belal and Roberts 2010 ; Khan 2010 ; Muttakin et al. 2015 ).

While these countries are classified as developing (IMF 2015 ), Bangladesh and India score only medium for human development. Another country in the region, Sri Lanka, has a high rating on the HDI, and has been exhibiting extensive growth since the end of a 30-year war (WPR 2015 ). Thus, exhibiting both economic and social growth aspects makes it an interesting case for studying CSR.

Sri Lanka has a population of over 20 million and foreign companies have increased their investments with one billion US dollars in direct foreign investments in 2013 alone ( BOI ). Classified as a middle income developing country, the challenge for Sri Lanka is to achieve high economic growth without causing irreversible damage to the environment and while continuing to eliminating social issues such as poverty, malnutrition and poor workplace ethics (Goger 2013 ). In addition, Sri Lanka also has a long history of corporate philanthropy, largely led by individuals whose values and actions stem from religious and cultural views (Beddewela and Herzig 2013 ) but has recently seen an increase in private firms offering development-related initiatives. Public infrastructure projects have been the main element of post-war economic planning, but there still remains rural poverty in the country. Thus, the primary motivation for CSR and philanthropy in Sri Lanka is poverty reduction, particularly for children and youth, social welfare organisations like orphanages and elderly homes, hospitals and health services, and veterans’ charities (Global Insights 2013 ). Thus, the economic, cultural, and political context means that these poverty rates have fallen (data indicates that the rate went from approximately 20 % in 2000 to under 9 % in 2013) and that inflation has slowed (Wijesinha 2014 ), so opportunities for private businesses to contribute to infrastructure abound. However, these private, development-orientated, CSR initiatives have often failed to deliver their aims and there is considered to be a danger that they may in fact perpetuate the causes of poverty and ethnic and religious conflict given their ties to particular ethnic groups (Global Insights 2013 ).

Notwithstanding this environment, the topic of CSR reporting in Sri Lanka has received relatively little research attention compared to other parts of the world (see Belal and Momin 2009 , for a review). In terms of motivations for CSR, there is some evidence that firms in which senior management have a positive outlook towards social and environmental practices tend to disclose more on these aspects, as compared to other firms (Fernando and Pandey 2012 ). However, reporting on CSR initiatives is not mandatory thus it is likely that any voluntary reporting by Sri Lankan firms will vary significantly. One study of reporting was conducted by Senaratne and Liyanagedara ( 2012 ) who examined the level of compliance with Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines in the disclosures of publicly listed companies, selected from seven business sectors. The authors conclude that the level of compliance with the GRI is low and that disclosures vary significantly amongst the companies, potentially reflecting varying commitment to CSR. Similarly, a longitudinal study across five years (2005–2010) was carried out by Wijesinghe ( 2012 ) to identify trends in CSR reporting in Sri Lanka and the study identified an increasingly positive trend, predicting similar levels of disclosures provided by companies in developed countries. The few studies that have been conducted examining the predominance of reporting in Sri Lanka, mostly examining multinational companies, conclude that CSR reporting is gaining momentum in Sri Lanka but is still emerging as the concept of CSR itself emerges (Beddewela and Herzig 2012 ; Hunter and Van Wassenhove 2011 ).

Conclusion and a future research agenda

As more and more research on CSR in developing countries emerges in the academic literature, it is important to ensure that appropriate consideration is given to the context in which the research takes place. Examination of CSR and CSR reporting practices without contextualisation could perpetuate flawed understandings that are based on evidence from research in the developed world. Different political, social, cultural and economic environments impact on the both the development of, and reporting of, CSR activities and consequently impact on the value of these activities to benefit society and the natural environment.

A suggested agenda for future research, that considers context in more depth, includes:

Consideration of ideological and hegemonic regimes and their attitude towards CSR. This research would consider potential positive and negative impacts of the political and governance system. In China, for example, the potential for Communist Party ideology to increase environmental protection and improve social conditions is vast, and is starting to be seen to have a strong impact on firm behaviour. Examination of this over time will provide an important contribution to understanding the role of government beyond the more common analysis of environmental protection regulation.

Greater examination of sociocultural variables in different countries, beyond analysis of religious influence, and beyond the use of Hofstede. Understandings of concepts such as CSR in countries in Asia, the Middle East and the Asian sub-continent, are known to differ from those in the West, so understanding their potential to lead to better (worse) CSR outcomes is important. The variety of variables that could be included is vast, but some clearly important issues include: language, secularism, freedom of the press, access to information, homogeneity of values and attitudes, and the existence of a national figurehead or identity.

Longitudinal examination of the process of economic development. Countries where the economy is developing rapidly, such as China and the Middle East; and countries where the historical economic context differs dramatically, such as in Sri Lanka where the need for development is borne out of conflict, provide rich backgrounds to consider how CSR is developing alongside economic developments.

A comprehensive framework for examining these, and other, potential factors that influence CSR and CSR reporting in developing countries does not exist, but Table  1 attempts to provide a preliminary outline of some factors that could comprise such a framework, and be used to guide future research. As mentioned earlier, it is important to note, however, that these variables are not discreet and are likely to interact with each other. This is noted in the table as a reminder that the classifications are somewhat artificial and that acknowledgement of a more holistic consideration is important.

These are clearly only a selection of opportunities for CSR research on developing nations and emerging economies. Calls for more work on these factors have continued since Adams’ ( 2002 ) original call, but there is still vast scope to improve our understanding of CSR practice throughout the world (Fifka 2013 ), where much of the social and environmental damage is taking place.

Importantly, research of this kind must be transdisciplinary as perspectives from areas such as political science, philosophy and economics are essential. Only with in-depth, contextualised understandings can improvements to the nature of CSR activity be implemented.

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It is important to acknowledge that this paper provides an overview of a larger research program currently being undertaken by a team of doctoral students at Flinders University and the University of South Australia. Credit must be given to Ms Hui Situ (Flinders University) who is researching environmental reporting in China, Mr Abdullah Silawi (Flinders University) who is researching social responsibility reporting in the Gulf region, and Ms Dinithi Dissanayake (University of SA), who is researching environmental disclosure in Sri Lanka.

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what is the meaning of social and environmental responsibility essay

Illustration of a calculator and environmental elements

Published:  January 24, 2024 Contributors:  Tom Krantz, Alexandra Jonker

ESG stands for environmental, social and governance and refers to a set of standards used to measure an organization’s environmental and social impact. It’s typically used in the context of investing, although it also applies to customers, suppliers, employees and the general public.

The term “ESG” was popularized in the 21st century and often comes up in the same conversation as sustainability and  corporate social responsibility  (CSR). However, while sustainability and CSR function more as philosophies or end-goals, ESG is more tangible; it encompasses the data and metrics needed to inform decision-making for companies and investors alike.

Take a look at the trends shaping the world of sustainable business and the insights that can help drive transformation.

Register for the report to mitigate climate change

Refers to whether the organization is operating as a steward of the environment and covers environmental issues like climate change, greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), deforestation, biodiversity, carbon emissions, waste management and pollution. 

Refers to the impact the organization has on people, culture and communities and looks at the social impact of diversity, inclusivity, human rights and  supply chains .

Refers to how the organization is directed and looks at corporate governance factors like executive compensation, succession planning, board management practices and shareholder rights.

The impact a company can have on its surrounding ecosystem has become vividly clear, whether it’s on a global scale or within its local community. At the same time, people have become increasingly concerned about ESG issues such as  climate change , human rights and executive compensation. And so, embedding  sustainability in business  is top-of-mind for executives and investors alike in today’s eco-conscious business landscape.

Given that stock markets traditionally mirror public sentiment, investors have recalibrated their asset management strategy to focus not only on financial performance but also various ESG factors. Now more than ever, businesses are being scrutinized by institutional investors looking to align their investment strategies with their values—namely their ESG considerations.  

Manage climate risks

Detect and quantify climate-related financial risks

Gain climate insights

Since many investment decisions are influenced by ESG criteria, investors have taken a new approach to asset management. And while they may seem similar, there are a few key distinctions between ESG investing and other strategies such as socially responsible investing (SRI) and impact investing.

ESG investing looks at various ESG factors alongside traditional financial metrics. However, there is an added opportunity and risk management component that factors environmental externalities into a company’s valuation. Ultimately, financial returns remain the biggest priority when it comes to ESG investing.

SRI, or sustainable investing, focuses less on financial returns and more on ethical considerations. For instance, an investor may avoid mutual funds or an exchange traded fund (ETF) if one of the companies operates in an industry that’s been detrimental to the environment.  

Impact investing could be considered the most philanthropic form of investing in which positive results are the highest priority. That means the investment needs to lead to a tangible social good. That could mean investing in an ETF or company that focuses exclusively on renewable energy or is on the path to net-zero operations.

In light of these new investment strategies, multiple ESG funds have sprouted up signaling the growing importance of ESG in today’s stock market. For companies, having a comprehensive ESG strategy is no longer a luxury but a requirement, which means organizations must become well-versed in ESG disclosure.

Organizations are increasingly including ESG metrics in their annual reports to help stakeholders make more sustainable investment choices. Through ESG reporting, companies can show how they compare to industry benchmarks and targets using qualitative and quantitative data to measure their progress across ESG initiatives. ESG reporting also provides stakeholders with the necessary insights to make informed decisions by highlighting potential ESG risks and opportunities that might affect the company's long-term value. 

There are numerous ways to draft an ESG report. Typically, they’re created using an established ESG framework that can offer instruction on which ESG topics to focus on. ESG frameworks also help organizations understand how to best structure and prepare information for disclosure so that they can earn a higher rating or ESG score.

An ESG score is used to track a company’s ESG performance, providing greater visibility into its operations for investors, stakeholders and regulatory bodies. Organizations that provide more robust ESG reports typically score higher, whereas those that don’t track or showcase their ESG performance will often have a lower ESG rating.

The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) is an organization that provides a set of recommended climate-related disclosures that companies and financial institutions can use to inform shareholders. Similarly, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) has helped establish and maintain industry-specific standards to guide the disclosure of organizations’ sustainability information.

Institutional investors can also look towards organizations like Morningstar, Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) and others to offer up ESG data on certain companies. All these providers play a crucial role in delivering key ESG metrics that can help determine how investible an organization is.

There are several regulations that have been put forth to help companies take ESG factors into account. For instance, the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is a European Union legislation that requires companies to report on the environmental and sustainable impact of their business activities, as well as their ESG initiatives. The Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) aims to do the same by standardizing the reporting of ESG metrics. 

Various frameworks have also been created to aid companies in their ESG disclosure. In Europe, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) enables companies to provide environmental information to their stakeholders and consists of risks and opportunity management, environmental targets, as well as strategy and scenario analysis. In that same vein, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) provides a global framework that standardizes approaches to materiality, management reporting and disclosure for a full range of ESG issues.

While these regulations and frameworks are designed to steer organizations and investors toward more sustainable business practices, they’re not a fool-proof deterrent against greenwashing or green fraud. Nor are they a buffer to a global disruption.

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly exposed the fragility of companies’ supply chains, health and financial services, as well as the climate itself. In the face of uncertainty, scholars grew concerned that companies would deprioritize their ESG initiatives to stay afloat. And while this was the case in some instances, an interesting discovery was made: companies that had strong ESG performance were better equipped to weather the pandemic as they had already accounted for the possibility of disruption. 1

It’s a powerful reminder that ESG is more than just metrics, regulations and frameworks. At its core, ESG is an actionable way to measure progress and take steps towards a more sustainable future.    

Simplify the capture, consolidation, management, analysis and reporting of your ESG data.

ESG frameworks are used by organizations for the purpose of publicly reporting detailed environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics of the business.

IBM and ARC are partnering to improve climate risk modeling and predictions on the African continent as the threat of climate change continues to advance.

Sustainability in business refers to a company's strategy and actions to eliminate the adverse environmental and social impacts caused by business operations.

The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) requires businesses to report on the environmental and social impact of their business activities, and on the business impact of their ESG efforts and initiatives.

Connect with peers, experts and professionals to fast-track your sustainability journey.

The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) seeks to keep investors better-informed about companies' climate-related risks.

IBM Environmental Intelligence Suite is a SaaS platform used to monitor, predict and respond to weather and climate impact. It includes geospatial and weather data APIs and optional add-ons with industry-specific environmental models—so your business can anticipate disruptive environmental conditions, proactively manage risk and build more sustainable operations.

1  Connecting the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing and calls for ‘harmonisation’ of sustainability reporting  (link resides outside, Adams, Abhayawansa, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 28 February 2022

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Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics is the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its non-human contents. This entry covers: (1) the challenge of environmental ethics to the anthropocentrism (i.e., human-centeredness) embedded in traditional western ethical thinking; (2) the development of the discipline from the 1960s and 1970s; (3) the connection of deep ecology, feminist environmental ethics, animism and social ecology to politics; (4) the attempt to apply traditional ethical theories, including consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics, to support contemporary environmental concerns; (5) the broader concerns of some thinkers with wilderness, the built environment and the politics of poverty; and (6) the ethics of sustainability and climate change.

1. Introduction: The Challenge of Environmental Ethics

2. the development of environmental ethics, 3.1 deep ecology, 3.2 feminism and the environment, 3.3 disenchantment and the new animism, 3.4 social ecology and bioregionalism.

Supplementary Document: Biodiversity Preservation

5. Wilderness, the Built Environment, Poverty and Politics

  • Supplementary Document: Pathologies of Environmental Crisis – Theories and Empirical Research

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Suppose putting out natural fires, culling feral animals or removing some individual members of overpopulated species is necessary for the protection of the integrity of a certain ecosystem. Will these actions be morally permissible or even required? Is it morally acceptable for farmers in non-industrial countries to practise slash and burn techniques to clear areas for agriculture? Consider a mining company which has performed open pit mining in some previously unspoiled area. Does the company have a moral obligation to restore the landform and surface ecology? And what is the value of a humanly restored environment compared with the originally natural environment? Many people think that it is morally wrong for human beings to pollute and destroy parts of the natural environment and to consume a huge proportion of the planet’s natural resources. If that is wrong, is it simply because a sustainable environment is essential to human existence and well-being? Or is such behaviour also wrong because the natural environment and/or its various contents have certain values in their own right so that these values ought to be respected and protected in any case? These are among the questions investigated by environmental ethics. Some of them are specific questions faced by individuals in particular circumstances, while others are more global questions faced by groups and communities. Yet others are more abstract questions concerning the value and moral standing of the natural environment and its non-human components.

In the literature on environmental ethics the distinction between instrumental value and intrinsic value (in the sense of “non-instrumental value”) is of considerable importance. The former is the value of things as means to further some other ends, whereas the latter is the value of things as ends in themselves regardless of whether they are also useful as means to other ends. For instance, certain fruits have instrumental value for bats who feed on them, since feeding on the fruits is a means to survival for the bats. However, it is not widely agreed that fruits have value as ends in themselves. We can likewise think of a person who teaches others as having instrumental value for those who want to acquire knowledge. Yet, in addition to any such value, it is normally said that a person, as a person, has intrinsic value, i.e., value in their own right independently of their prospects for serving the ends of others. For another example, a certain wild plant may have instrumental value because it provides the ingredients for some medicine or as an aesthetic object for human observers. But if the plant also has some value in itself independently of its prospects for furthering some other ends such as human health, or the pleasure from aesthetic experience, then the plant also has intrinsic value. Because the intrinsically valuable is that which is good as an end in itself, it is commonly agreed that something’s possession of intrinsic value generates a prima facie direct moral duty on the part of moral agents to protect it or at least refrain from damaging it (see O’Neil 1992 and Jamieson 2002 for detailed accounts of intrinsic value).

Many traditional western ethical perspectives, however, are anthropocentric or human-centered in that either they assign intrinsic value to human beings alone (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a strong sense) or they assign a significantly greater amount of intrinsic value to human beings than to any non-human things such that the protection or promotion of human interests or well-being at the expense of non-human things turns out to be nearly always justified (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a weak sense). For example, Aristotle ( Politics , Bk. 1, Ch. 8) apparently maintains that “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”. Such purposive or teleological thinking may encourage the belief that the value of non-human things in nature is merely instrumental. It is difficult for anthropocentric positions to articulate what is wrong with the cruel treatment of non-human animals, except to the extent that such treatment may lead to bad consequences for human beings. Immanuel Kant (“Duties to Animals and Spirits”, in Lectures on Ethics ), for instance, suggests that cruelty towards a dog might encourage a person to develop a character which would be desensitized to cruelty towards humans. From this standpoint, cruelty towards non-human animals would be instrumentally, rather than intrinsically, wrong. Likewise, anthropocentrism often recognizes some non-intrinsic wrongness of anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) environmental devastation. Such destruction might damage the well-being of human beings now and in the future, since our very existence and well-being is essentially dependent on a sustainable environment. This argument was made in the previous century (see Passmore 1974; Bookchin 1990; Norton et al . (eds.) 1995), and seems subsequently to have garnered wide public support (see the results of surveys in Pew 2018).

When environmental ethics emerged as a new sub-discipline of philosophy in the early 1970s, it did so by posing a challenge to traditional anthropocentrism. In the first place, it questioned the assumed moral superiority of human beings to members of other species on earth. In the second place, it investigated the possibility of rational arguments for assigning intrinsic value to the natural environment and its non-human contents. It should be noted, however, that some theorists working in the field see no need to develop new, non-anthropocentric theories. Instead, they advocate what may be called enlightened anthropocentrism (or, perhaps more appropriately called, prudential anthropocentrism). Briefly, this is the view that all the moral duties we have towards the environment are derived from our direct duties to its human inhabitants. The practical purpose of environmental ethics, they maintain, is to provide moral grounds for social policies aimed at protecting the earth’s environment and remedying environmental degradation. Enlightened anthropocentrism, they argue, is sufficient for that practical purpose, and perhaps even more effective in delivering pragmatic outcomes, in terms of policy-making, than non-anthropocentric theories given the theoretical burden on the latter to provide sound arguments for its more radical view that the non-human environment has intrinsic value (cf. Norton 1991, de Shalit 1994, Light and Katz 1996). Furthermore, some prudential anthropocentrists may hold what might be called cynical anthropocentrism, which says that we have a higher-level anthropocentric reason to be non-anthropocentric in our day-to-day thinking. Suppose that a day-to-day non-anthropocentrist tends to act more benignly towards the non-human environment on which human well-being depends. This would provide reason for encouraging non-anthropocentric thinking, even to those who find the idea of non-anthropocentric intrinsic value hard to swallow. In order for such a strategy to be effective one may need to hide one’s cynical anthropocentrism from others and even from oneself. The position can be structurally compared to some indirect form of consequentialism and may attract parallel critiques (see Henry Sidgwick on utilitarianism and esoteric morality, and Bernard Williams on indirect utilitarianism).

Although nature was the focus of much nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, contemporary environmental ethics only emerged as an academic discipline in the 1970s. The questioning and rethinking of the relationship of human beings with the natural environment over the last thirty years reflected an already widespread perception in the 1960s that the late twentieth century faced a human population explosion as part of a serious environmental crisis. Among the accessible work that drew attention to a sense of crisis was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963), which consisted of a number of essays earlier published in the New Yorker magazine detailing how pesticides such as DDT, aldrin and dieldrin concentrated through the food web. Commercial farming practices using these chemicals to maximize crop yields and profits, Carson speculates, are capable of impacting simultaneously on environmental and public health. Their use, she claims, can have the side effects of killing other living things (besides the targeted insects) and causing human disease. While Carson correctly fears that over-use of pesticides may lead to increases in some resistant insect species, the intensification of agriculture, land-clearing and massive use of neonicotonoid pesticides has subsequently contributed to a situation in which, according to some reviews, nearly half of insect species are threatened with extinction (Sánchez-Bayo and Wickhuys 2019, and compare van der Sluijs and Vaage 2016, Komonen, Halme and Kotiaho 2019). Declines in insect populations not only threaten pollination of plant species, but may also be responsible for huge declines in some bird populations (Goulson 2021) and appear to go hand in hand with cascading extinctions across ecosystems worldwide (Kehoe, Frago and Sanders 2021).

In a much cited essay (White 1967) on the historical roots of the environmental crisis, historian Lynn White argued that the main strands of Judeo-Christian thinking had encouraged the overexploitation of nature by maintaining the superiority of humans over all other forms of life on earth, and by depicting all of nature as created for the use of humans. White’s thesis was widely discussed in theology, history, and has been subject to some sociological testing as well as being regularly discussed by philosophers (see Whitney 1993, Attfield 2001). Central to the rationale for his thesis were the works of the Church Fathers and The Bible itself, supporting the anthropocentric perspective that humans are the only things on Earth that matter in themselves. Consequently, they may utilize and consume everything else to their advantage without any injustice. For example, Genesis 1: 27–8 states: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Likewise, Thomas Aquinas ( Summa Contra Gentiles , Bk. 3, Pt 2, Ch 112) argued that non-human animals are “ordered to man’s use”. According to White, the Judeo-Christian idea that humans are created in the image of the transcendent supernatural God, who is radically separate from nature, also by extension radically separates humans themselves from nature. This ideology further opened the way for untrammeled exploitation of nature. Modern Western science itself, White argued, was “cast in the matrix of Christian theology” so that it too inherited the “orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature” (White 1967: 1207). Clearly, without technology and science, the environmental extremes to which we are now exposed would probably not be realized. The point of White’s thesis, however, is that given the modern form of science and technology, Judeo-Christianity itself provides the original deep-seated drive to unlimited exploitation of nature. Nevertheless, White argued that some minority traditions within Christianity (e.g., the views of St. Francis) might provide an antidote to the “arrogance” of a mainstream tradition steeped in anthropocentrism. This sentiment is echoed in later Christian writings on attitudes to nature (see for example Berry 2018, chs 10, 11, and compare Zaheva and Szasz 2015).

Around the same time, the Stanford ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich warned in The Population Bomb (Ehrlich 1968) that the growth of human population threatened the viability of planetary life-support systems. The sense of environmental crisis stimulated by those and other popular works was intensified by NASA’s production and wide dissemination of a particularly potent image of Earth from space taken at Christmas 1968 and featured in the Scientific American in September 1970. Here, plain to see, was a living, shining planet voyaging through space and shared by all of humanity, a precious vessel vulnerable to pollution and to the overuse of its limited capacities. In 1972 a team of researchers at MIT led by Donella Meadows published the Limits to Growth study, a work that summed up in many ways the emerging concerns of the previous decade and the sense of vulnerability triggered by the view of the earth from space. In the commentary to the study, the researchers wrote:

We affirm finally that any deliberate attempt to reach a rational and enduring state of equilibrium by planned measures, rather than by chance or catastrophe, must ultimately be founded on a basic change of values and goals at individual, national and world levels. (Meadows et al. 1972: 195)

The call for a “basic change of values” in connection to the environment (a call that could be interpreted in terms of either instrumental or intrinsic values) reflected a need for the development of environmental ethics as a new sub-discipline of philosophy. The aim of facing up to the challenge of limited resources was fostered subsequently by studies of the growing human “ecological footprint” on the earth (Rees 1992, Wackernagel et al . 2018) and by the exploration of “planetary boundaries” and the concept of a “safe operating space for humanity” (Rokström et al . 2009, Biermann and Kim 2020).

The new field emerged almost simultaneously in three countries—the United States, Australia, and Norway. In the first two of these countries, direction and inspiration largely came from the earlier twentieth century American literature of the environment. For instance, the Scottish emigrant John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club and “father of American conservation”) and subsequently the forester Aldo Leopold had advocated an appreciation and conservation of things “natural, wild and free”. Their concerns were motivated by a combination of ethical and aesthetic responses to nature as well as a rejection of crudely economic approaches to the value of natural objects (a historical survey of the confrontation between Muir’s reverentialism and the human-centred conservationism of Gifford Pinchot (one of the major influences on the development of the US Forest Service) is provided in Norton 1991; also see Cohen 1984 and Nash (ed) 1990). Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), in particular, advocated the adoption of a “land ethic”:

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. (Leopold 1949: vii–ix) A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. (Leopold 1949: 224–5)

However, Leopold himself provided no systematic ethical theory or framework to support these ethical ideas concerning the environment. His views therefore presented a challenge and opportunity for moral theorists: could some ethical theory be devised to justify the injunction to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biosphere?

The land ethic sketched by Leopold, attempting to extend our moral concern to cover the natural environment and its non-human contents, was drawn on explicitly by the Australian philosopher Richard Routley (later Sylvan). According to Routley (1973 (cf. Routley and Routley 1980)), the anthropocentrism imbedded in what he called the “dominant western view”, or “the western superethic”, is in effect “human chauvinism”. This view, he argued, is just another form of class chauvinism, which is simply based on blind class “loyalty” or prejudice, and unjustifiably discriminates against those outside the privileged class. Echoing the plot of a popular movie some three years earlier (see Lo and Brennan 2013), Routley speculates in his “last man” (and “last people”) arguments about a hypothetical situation in which the last person, surviving a world catastrophe, acts to ensure the elimination of all other living things and the last people set about destroying forests and ecosystems after their demise. From the human-chauvinistic (or absolutely anthropocentric) perspective, the last person would do nothing morally wrong, since his or her destructive act in question would not cause any damage to the interests and well-being of humans, who would by then have disappeared. Nevertheless, Routley points out that there is a moral intuition that the imagined last acts would be morally wrong. An explanation for this judgment, he argues, is that those non-human objects in the environment, whose destruction is ensured by the last person or last people, have intrinsic value, a kind of value independent of their usefulness for humans. From his critique, Routley concluded that the main approaches in traditional western moral thinking were unable to allow the recognition that natural things have intrinsic value, and that the tradition required overhaul of a significant kind.

Leopold’s idea that the “land” as a whole is an object of our moral concern also stimulated writers to argue for certain moral obligations toward ecological wholes, such as species, communities, and ecosystems, not just their individual constituents. The U.S.-based theologian and environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston III, for instance, argued that species protection was a moral duty (Rolston 1975). It would be wrong, he maintained, to eliminate a rare butterfly species simply to increase the monetary value of specimens already held by collectors. Like Routley’s “last man” arguments, Rolston’s example is meant to draw attention to a kind of action that seems morally dubious and yet is not clearly ruled out or condemned by traditional anthropocentric ethical views. Species, Rolston went on to argue, are intrinsically valuable and are usually more valuable than individual specimens, since the loss of a species is a loss of genetic possibilities and the deliberate destruction of a species would show disrespect for the very biological processes which make possible the emergence of individual living things (also see Rolston 1989, Ch 10). Natural processes deserve respect, according to Rolston’s quasi-religious perspective, because they constitute a nature (or God) which is itself intrinsically valuable (or sacred).

Meanwhile, the work of Christopher Stone (a professor of law at the University of Southern California) had become widely discussed. Stone (1972) proposes that trees and other natural objects should have at least the same standing in law as corporations. This suggestion was inspired by a particular case in which the Sierra Club had mounted a challenge against the permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service to Walt Disney Enterprises for surveys preparatory to the development of the Mineral King Valley, which was at the time a relatively remote game refuge, but not designated as a national park or protected wilderness area. The Disney proposal was to develop a major resort complex serving 14000 visitors daily to be accessed by a purpose-built highway through Sequoia National Park. The Sierra Club, as a body with a general concern for wilderness conservation, challenged the development on the grounds that the valley should be kept in its original state for its own sake.

Stone reasoned that if trees, forests and mountains could be given standing in law then they could be represented in their own right in the courts by groups such as the Sierra Club. Moreover, like any other legal person , these natural things could become beneficiaries of compensation if it could be shown that they had suffered compensatable injury through human activity. When the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was determined by a narrow majority that the Sierra Club did not meet the condition for bringing a case to court, for the Club was unable and unwilling to prove the likelihood of injury to the interest of the Club or its members. In dissenting minority judgments, however, justices Douglas, Blackmun and Brennan mentioned Stone’s argument: his proposal to give legal standing to natural things, they said, would allow conservation interests, community needs and business interests to be represented, debated and settled in court. Stone’s work was later cited in the successful arguments to grant personhood to rivers and other natural features in various parts of the world. In some of these cases, Stone’s arguments—along with those of Arne Næss (see below)—have been said to provide analogues to indigenous understandings of the intrinsic value of the land and the interconnections of such understandings with human actions and ancestral spirituality (Morris and Ruru 2010, Kramm 2020). Similar suggestions have also been made about Leopold’s work, but such claims need to be interpreted with caution (White 2015).

Reacting to Stone’s proposal, Joel Feinberg (1974) raised a serious problem. Only items that have interests, Feinberg argued, can be regarded as having legal standing and, likewise, moral standing. For it is interests which are capable of being represented in legal proceedings and moral debates. This same point would also seem to apply to political debates. For instance, the movement for “animal liberation”, which also emerged strongly in the 1970s, can be thought of as a political movement aimed at representing the previously neglected interests of some animals (see Regan and Singer (eds.) 1976, Clark 1977, and also the entry on the moral status of animals ). Granted that some animals have interests that can be represented in this way, would it also make sense to speak of trees, forests, rivers, barnacles, or termites as having interests of a morally relevant kind? This issue was hotly contested in the years that followed. Meanwhile, John Passmore (1974) argued, like White, that the Judeo-Christian tradition of thought about nature, despite being predominantly “despotic”, contained resources for regarding humans as “stewards” or “perfectors” of God’s creation. Skeptical of the prospects for any radically new ethic, Passmore cautioned that traditions of thought could not be abruptly overhauled. Any change in attitudes to our natural surroundings which stood the chance of widespread acceptance, he argued, would have to resonate and have some continuities with the very tradition which had legitimized our destructive practices.

In sum, then, Leopold’s land ethic, the historical analyses of White and Passmore, the pioneering work of Routley, Stone and Rolston, and the warnings of scientists, had by the late 1970s focused the attention of philosophers and political theorists firmly on the environment. The confluence of ethical, political and legal debates about the environment, the emergence of philosophies to underpin animal rights activism and the puzzles over whether an environmental ethic would be something new rather than a modification or extension of existing ethical theories were reflected in wider social and political movements. The rise of environmental or “green” parties in Europe in the 1980s was accompanied by almost immediate schisms between groups known as “realists” versus “fundamentalists” (see Dobson 1990). The “realists” stood for reform environmentalism, working with business and government to soften the impact of pollution and resource depletion especially on fragile ecosystems or endangered species. The “fundies” argued for radical change, the setting of stringent new priorities, and even the overthrow of capitalism and liberal individualism, which were taken as the major ideological causes of anthropogenic environmental devastation. It is not clear, however, that collectivist or communist countries do particularly well in terms of their environmental record (see Dominick 1998). At the same time, the rise of “environmental authoritarianism” in some non-democratic countries appears to show that liberal democracies may not have a monopoly on effective action to support sustainability and biodiversity (Beeson 2010, Shahar 2015).

Underlying these political disagreements was the distinction between “shallow” and “deep” environmental movements, a distinction introduced in the early 1970s by another major influence on contemporary environmental ethics, the Norwegian philosopher and climber Arne Næss. Since the work of Næss has been significant in environmental politics, the discussion of his position is given in a separate section below.

3. Environmental Ethics and Politics

“Deep ecology” was born in Scandinavia, the result of discussions between Næss and his colleagues Sigmund Kvaløy and Nils Faarlund (see Næss 1973 and 1989; also see Witoszek and Brennan (eds.) 1999 for a historical survey and commentary on the development of deep ecology). All three shared a passion for the great mountains. On a visit to the Himalayas, they became impressed with aspects of “Sherpa culture” particularly when they found that their Sherpa guides regarded certain mountains as sacred and accordingly would not venture onto them. Subsequently, Næss formulated a position which extended the reverence the three Norwegians and the Sherpas felt for mountains to other natural things in general.

The “shallow ecology movement”, as Næss (1973) calls it, is the “fight against pollution and resource depletion”, the central objective of which is “the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.” The “deep ecology movement”, in contrast, endorses “biospheric egalitarianism”, the view that all living things are alike in having value in their own right, independent of their usefulness to others. The deep ecologist respects this intrinsic value, taking care, for example, when walking on the mountainside not to cause unnecessary damage to the plants.

Inspired by Spinoza’s metaphysics, another key feature of Næss’s deep ecology is the rejection of atomistic individualism. The idea that a human being is such an individual possessing a separate essence, Næss argues, radically separates the human self from the rest of the world. To make such a separation not only leads to selfishness towards other people, but also induces human selfishness towards nature. As a counter to egoism at both the individual and species level, Næss proposes an alternative relational “total-field image” of the world. According to this relationalism, organisms (human or otherwise) are best understood as “knots” in the biospherical net. The identity of a living thing is essentially constituted by its relations to other things in the world, especially its ecological relations to other living things. If people conceptualise themselves and the world in relational terms, the deep ecologists argue, then people will take better care of nature and the world in general.

As developed by Næss and others, the position also came to focus on the possibility of the identification of the human ego with nature. The idea is, briefly, that by identifying with nature I can enlarge the boundaries of the self beyond my skin. My larger—ecological—Self (the capital “S” emphasizes that I am something larger than my body and consciousness), deserves respect as well. To respect and to care for my Self is also to respect and to care for the natural environment, which is actually part of me and with which I should identify. Næss quotes the example of Saami people and their identification with the rivers on which they depend for sustenance. Recognition of such identification has underpinned the establishment in New Zealand of legal personhood for some rivers and other natural areas (Kramm 2020). “Self-realization” is thus the realization of a wider ecological Self. Næss maintains that the deep satisfaction that we receive from identification with nature and close partnership with other forms of life in nature contributes significantly to our life quality. (One historical antecedent to this kind of nature spiritualism is the romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as expressed in his last work, the Reveries of the Solitary Walker )

When Næss’s view crossed the Atlantic, it was sometimes merged with ideas emerging from Leopold’s land ethic (see Devall and Sessions 1985; also see Sessions (ed) 1995). But Næss—wary of the supposed totalitarian political implications of Leopold’s position that individual interests and well-being should be subordinated to the holistic good of the earth’s biotic community (see section 4 below)—took care to distance himself from advocating any sort of “land ethic”. (See Anker 1999 for cautions on interpreting Næss’s relationalism as an endorsement of the kind of holism displayed in the land ethic; cf. Grey 1993, Taylor and Zimmerman 2005). Some critics have argued that Næss’s deep ecology is no more than an extended social-democratic version of utilitarianism, which counts human interests in the same calculation alongside the interests of all natural things (e.g., trees, wolves, bears, rivers, forests and mountains) in the natural environment (see Witoszek 1997). However, Næss failed to explain in any detail how to make sense of the idea that oysters or barnacles, termites or bacteria could have interests of any morally relevant sort at all. Without an account of this, Næss’s early “biospheric egalitarianism”—that all living things whatsoever had a similar right to live and flourish—was an indeterminate principle in practical terms. It also remains unclear in what sense rivers, mountains and forests can be regarded as possessors of any kind of interests. This is an issue on which Næss always remained elusive.

Biospheric egalitarianism was modified in the 1980s to the weaker claim that the flourishing of both human and non-human life has value in itself, without any commitment to these values being equal. At the same time, Næss declared that his own favoured ecological philosophy—“Ecosophy T”, as he called it after his Tvergastein mountain cabin—was only one of several possible foundations for an environmental ethic. Deep ecology ceased to be a specific doctrine, but instead became a “platform” of eight simple points on which Næss hoped all deep green thinkers could agree. The platform was conceived as establishing a middle ground, between underlying orientations, whether indigenous, Christian, Buddhist, Daoist, process philosophy, or whatever, and the practical principles for action in specific situations, principles generated from the underlying philosophies. Thus the deep ecological movement became explicitly pluralist both morally and epistemologically (see Brennan 1999; c.f. Light 1996, Akamani 2020).

While Næss’s Ecosophy T sees human Self-realization as a solution to the environmental crises resulting from human selfishness and exploitation of nature, some of the followers of the deep ecology platform in the United States and Australia further argue that the expansion of the human self to include non-human nature is supported by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which is said to have dissolved the boundaries between the observer and the observed (see Fox 1984, 1990, and Devall and Sessions 1985; cf. Callicott 1985). These “relationalist” developments of deep ecology are, however, criticized by some feminist theorists. The idea of nature as part of oneself, they argue, could justify the continued exploitation of nature instead. For one is presumably more entitled to treat oneself in whatever ways one likes than to treat another independent agent in whatever ways one likes. According to these feminist critics, the deep ecological theory of the “expanded self” is in effect a disguised form of human colonialism, unable to give nature its due as a genuine “other” independent of human interest and purposes (see Plumwood 1993, Ch. 7, 1999, and Warren 1999).

Meanwhile, other critics accuse deep ecology of being elitist in its attempts to preserve wilderness experiences for only a select group of economically and socio-politically well-off people. Ramachandra Guha (1989, 1999) for instance, depicts the activities of many western-based conservation groups as a new form of cultural imperialism, aimed at securing converts to conservationism (cf. Bookchin 1987 and Brennan 1998a). “Green missionaries”, as Guha calls them, represent a movement aimed at further dispossessing the world’s poor and indigenous people. “Putting deep ecology in its place,” he writes, “is to recognize that the trends it derides as “shallow” ecology might in fact be varieties of environmentalism that are more apposite, more representative and more popular in the countries of the South.” Although Næss himself repudiates suggestions that deep ecology is committed to any form of imperialism (see Witoszek and Brennan (eds.) 1999, Ch. 36–7 and 41), Guha’s criticism raises important questions about the application of deep ecological principles in different social, economic and cultural contexts. Finally, in other critiques, deep ecology is portrayed as having an inconsistent utopian vision (see Anker and Witoszek 1998).

Broadly speaking, a feminist issue is any that contributes in some way to understanding the oppression of women. Feminist theories attempt to analyze women’s oppression, its causes and consequences, and suggest strategies and directions for women’s liberation. By the mid 1970s, feminist writers had raised the issue of whether patriarchal modes of thinking encouraged not only widespread inferiorizing and colonizing of women, but also of people of colour, animals and nature. Sheila Collins (1974), for instance, argued that male-dominated culture or patriarchy is supported by four interlocking pillars: sexism, racism, class exploitation, and ecological destruction.

Emphasizing the importance of feminism to the environmental movement and various other liberation movements, some writers, such as Ynestra King (1989a and 1989b), argue that the domination of women by men is historically the original form of domination in human society, from which all other hierarchies—of rank, class, and political power—flow. For instance, human exploitation of nature may be seen as a manifestation and extension of the oppression of women, in that it is the result of associating nature with the female, which had been already inferiorized and oppressed by the male-dominating culture. But within the plurality of feminist positions, other writers, such as Val Plumwood (1993), understand the oppression of women as only one of the many parallel forms of oppression sharing and supported by a common ideological structure, in which one party (the colonizer, whether male, white or human) uses a number of conceptual and rhetorical devices to privilege its interests over that of the other party (the colonized: whether female, people of colour, or animals). Facilitated by a common structure, seemingly diverse forms of oppression can mutually reinforce each other (Warren 1987, 1990, 1994, Cheney 1989, and Plumwood 1993).

Not all feminist theorists would call that common underlying oppressive structure “androcentric” or “patriarchal”. But it is generally agreed that core features of the structure include dichotomies, hierarchical thinking, and a “logic of domination”, which are typical of, if not essential to, male-chauvinism. These patterns of thinking and conceptualizing the world, many feminist theorists argue, also nourish and sustain other forms of chauvinism including human-chauvinism (i.e., anthropocentrism), which is responsible for much human exploitation of, and destructiveness towards, nature. Writers comment on dichotomous forms of thinking which depict the world in polar opposite terms, such as male/female, masculinity/femininity, reason/emotion, freedom/necessity, active/passive, mind/body, pure/soiled, white/coloured, civilized/primitive, transcendent/immanent, human/animal, culture/nature. When these dichotomies involve hierarchy and domination they are often labelled "dualisms". Under the influence of such dualisms all the first items in these contrasting pairs are assimilated with each other, and all the second items are likewise linked with each other. For example, the male is seen to be associated with the rational, active, creative, Cartesian human mind, and civilized, orderly, transcendent culture; whereas the female is regarded as tied to the emotional, passive, determined animal body, and primitive, disorderly, immanent nature. These interlocking dualisms are not just descriptive dichotomies, according to the feminists, but involve a prescriptive privileging of one side of the opposed items over the other. Dualism confers superiority to everything on the male side, but inferiority to everything on the female side. The “logic of domination” then dictates that those on the superior side (e.g., men, rational beings, humans) are morally entitled to dominate and utilize those on the inferior side (e.g., women, beings lacking in rationality, non-humans) as mere means.

The problem with dualistic modes of thinking, however, is not just that they are epistemically unreliable. It is not just that the dominating party often falsely sees the dominated party as lacking (or possessing) the allegedly superior (or inferior) qualities, or that the dominated party often internalizes false stereotypes of itself given by its oppressors, or that stereotypical thinking often overlooks salient and important differences among individuals. More important, according to feminist analyses, the very premise of prescriptive dualism—the valuing of attributes of one polarized side and the devaluing of those of the other, the idea that domination and oppression can be justified by appealing to attributes like masculinity, rationality, being civilized or developed, etc.—is itself problematic.

Feminism represents a radical challenge for environmental thinking, politics, and traditional social ethical perspectives. It promises to link environmental questions with wider social problems concerning various kinds of discrimination and exploitation, and fundamental investigations of human psychology. However, whether there are conceptual, causal or merely contingent connections among the different forms of oppression and liberation remains a contested issue (see Green 1994). The term “ecofeminism” (first coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974) or “ecological feminism” was for a time generally applied to any view that combines environmental advocacy with feminist analysis. However, because of the varieties of, and disagreements among, feminist theories, the label may be too wide to be informative (see the entry on feminist environmental philosophy ).

An often overlooked source of ecological ideas is the work of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School of critical theory founded by Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno (Horkheimer and Adorno 1969). While classical Marxists regard nature as a resource to be transformed by human labour and utilized for human purposes, Horkheimer and Adorno saw Marx himself as representative of the problem of “human alienation”. At the root of this alienation, they argue, is a narrow positivist conception of rationality—which sees rationality as an instrument for pursuing progress, power and technological control, and takes observation, measurement and the application of purely quantitative methods to be capable of solving all problems. Such a positivistic view of science combines determinism with optimism. Natural processes as well as human activities are seen to be predictable and manipulable. Nature (and, likewise, human nature) is no longer mysterious, uncontrollable, or fearsome. Instead, it is reduced to an object strictly governed by natural laws, which therefore can be studied, known, and employed to our benefit. By promising limitless knowledge and power, the positivism of science and technology not only removes our fear of nature, the critical theorists argue, but also destroys our sense of awe and wonder towards it. That is to say, positivism “disenchants” nature—along with everything that can be studied by the sciences, whether natural, social or human.

The progress in knowledge and material well-being may not be a bad thing in itself, where the consumption and control of nature is a necessary part of human life. However, the critical theorists argue that the positivistic disenchantment of natural things (and, likewise, of human beings—because they too can be studied and manipulated by science) disrupts our relationship with them, encouraging the undesirable attitude that they are nothing more than things to be probed, consumed and dominated. According to the critical theorists, the oppression of “outer nature” (i.e., the natural environment) through science and technology is bought at a very high price: the project of domination requires the suppression of our own “inner nature” (i.e., human nature)—e.g., human creativity, autonomy, and the manifold needs, vulnerabilities and longings at the centre of human life. To remedy such an alienation, the project of Horkheimer and Adorno is to replace the narrow positivistic and instrumentalist model of rationality with a more humanistic one, in which the values of the aesthetic, moral, sensuous and expressive aspects of human life play a central part. Thus, their aim is not to give up our rational faculties or powers of analysis and logic. Rather, the ambition is to arrive at a dialectical synthesis between Romanticism and Enlightenment, to return to anti-deterministic values of freedom, spontaneity and creativity.

In his later work, Adorno advocates a re-enchanting aesthetic attitude of “sensuous immediacy” towards nature. Not only do we stop seeing nature as primarily, or simply, an object of consumption, we are also able to be directly and spontaneously acquainted with nature without interventions from our rational faculties. According to Adorno, works of art, like natural things, always involve an “excess”, something more than their mere materiality and exchange value (see Vogel 1996, ch. 4.4 for a detailed discussion of Adorno’s views on art, labour and domination). The re-enchantment of the world through aesthetic experience, he argues, is also at the same time a re-enchantment of human lives and purposes. Adorno’s work remains largely unexplored in mainstream environmental philosophy, although the idea of applying critical theory (embracing techniques of deconstruction, psychoanalysis and radical social criticism) to both environmental issues and the writings of various ethical and political theorists has spawned the field of “écocritique” or “ecocriticism” (Vogel 1996, Luke 1997, van Wyk 1997, Dryzek 1997, Garrard 2014).

Some students of Adorno’s work have argued that his account of the role of “sensuous immediacy” can be understood as an attempt to defend a “legitimate anthropomorphism” that comes close to a weak form of animism (Bernstein 2001, 196). Others, more radical, have claimed to take inspiration from his notion of “non-identity”, which, they argue, can be used as the basis for a deconstruction of the notion of nature and perhaps even its elimination from ecocritical writing. For example, Timothy Morton argues that “putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration” (Morton 2007, 5), and that “in the name of all that we value in the idea of ‘nature’, [ecocritique] thoroughly examines how nature is set up as a transcendental, unified, independent category. Ecocritique does not think that it is paradoxical to say, in the name of ecology itself: ‘down with nature!’” (ibid., 13). In this vein, some thinkers have insisted that environmental ethics makes a mistake in drawing a significant distinction between the natural and the artificial (Vogel 2015). Such an idea, however, has drawn fierce criticism from some Marxist theorists who argue that the “end of nature” thesis is deeply confused (for example Malm 2018). It remains to be seen, however, whether the radical attempt to purge the concept of nature from ecocritical work meets with success. Likewise, it is unclear whether the dialectic project on which Horkheimer and Adorno embarked is coherent, and whether Adorno, in particular, has a consistent understanding of “nature” and “rationality” (see Eckersley 1992 and Vogel 1996, for a review of the Frankfurt School’s thinking about nature, and on rationality see also the entry on critical theory ).

On the other hand, the new animists have been much inspired by the serious way in which some indigenous peoples placate and interact with animals, plants and inanimate things through ritual, ceremony and other practices (for examples see Kimmerer 2020). According to the new animists, the replacement of traditional animism (the view that personalized souls are found in animals, plants, and other material objects) by a form of disenchanting positivism directly leads to an anthropocentric perspective, which is accountable for much human destructiveness towards nature. In a disenchanted world, there is no meaningful order of things or events outside the human domain, and there is no source of sacredness or dread of the sort felt by those who regard the natural world as peopled by divinities or demons (Stone 2006). When a forest is no longer sacred, there are no spirits to be placated and no mysterious risks associated with clear-felling it. A disenchanted nature is no longer alive. It commands no respect, reverence or love. It is nothing but a giant machine, to be mastered to serve human purposes. The new animists argue for reconceptualizing the boundary between persons and non-persons. For them, “living nature” comprises not only humans, animals and plants, but also mountains, forests, rivers, deserts, and even planets.

Whether the notion that a mountain or a tree is to be regarded as a person is taken literally or not, the attempt to engage with the surrounding world as if it consists of other persons might possibly provide the basis for a respectful attitude to nature (see Harvey 2005 for a popular account of the new animism). If disenchantment is a source of environmental problems and destruction, then the new animism can be regarded as attempting to re-enchant, and help to save, nature. More poetically, David Abram has argued that a phenomenological approach of the kind taken by Merleau-Ponty can reveal to us that we are part of the “common flesh” of the world, that we are in a sense the world thinking itself (Abram 1995).

In her work, Freya Mathews has tried to articulate a version of animism or panpsychism that captures ways in which the world (not just nature) contains many kinds of consciousness and sentience. For her, there is an underlying unity of mind and matter in that the world is a “self-realizing” system containing a multiplicity of other such systems (cf. Næss). According to Mathews, we are meshed in communication, and potential communication, with the “One” (the greater cosmic self) and its many lesser selves (Mathews 2003, 45–60). Materialism (the monistic theory that the world consists purely of matter), she argues, is self-defeating by encouraging a form of “collective solipsism” that treats the world either as unknowable or as a social-construction (Mathews 2005, 12). Mathews also takes inspiration from her interpretation of the core Daoist idea of wuwei as “letting be” and bringing about change through “effortless action”. The focus in environmental management, development and commerce should be on “synergy” with what is already in place rather than on demolition, replacement and disruption. Instead of bulldozing away old suburbs and derelict factories, the synergistic panpsychist sees these artefacts as themselves part of the living cosmos, hence part of what is to be respected. Likewise, instead of trying to eliminate feral or exotic plants and animals, and restore environments to some imagined pristine state, ways should be found—wherever possible—to promote synergies between the newcomers and the older native populations in ways that maintain ecological flows and promote the further unfolding and developing of ecological processes (Mathews 2004). Panpsychism, Mathews argues, frees us from the “ideological grid of capitalism”, can reduce our desire for consumer novelties, and can allow us and the world to grow old together with grace and dignity. Again, some of Mathews work echoes indigenous understandings of an enlarged subjectivity. As Deborah Rose puts it: “subjectivity in the form of sentience and agency is not solely a human prerogative but is located throughout other species and perhaps throughout country itself” (Rose 2005, 302).

In summary, if disenchantment is a source of environmentally destructive or uncaring attitudes, then both the aesthetic and the animist/panpsychist re-enchantment of the world are intended to offer an antidote to such attitudes, and perhaps also inspirations for new forms of managing and designing for sustainability. The general project of re-enchanting the world has surprising resonances with the views of others who draw more explicitly on scientific understandings of life on earth. Earth systems science, for example, draws on the Gaia hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock (Lovelock 1972, 1979) suggesting that living things acting together regulate significant aspects of the global environment (Lovelock and Margulis 1974). Later writers describe the Gaia hypothesis as conjecturing that something overlooked by previous scientific thinking was of vital importance to understanding the one thing that supports all life on earth, namely a great stabilizing feedback system which regulates itself in a way that maintains the habitability of the planet (Lenton et al . 2020). This feedback system is itself under threat from a changing climate, human overpopulation and reductions in biodiversity (see further section 6 below and also Latour 2017). In place of a vision of a grand cosmic self, champions of Gaia theory argue for recognizing the value of Life itself, where the capital "L" draws attention to the great feedback system—a single entity comprising all the living things descended from the last universal common ancestor (Mariscal and Dolittle 2008).

Apart from feminist-environmentalist theories and Næss’s deep ecology, Murray Bookchin’s “social ecology” has also claimed to be radical, subversive, or countercultural (see Bookchin 1980, 1987, 1990). Bookchin’s version of critical theory takes the “outer” physical world as constituting what he calls “first nature”, from which culture or “second nature” has evolved. Environmentalism, in his view, is a social movement, and the problems it confronts are social problems. While Bookchin is prepared, like Horkheimer and Adorno, to regard (first) nature as an aesthetic and sensuous marvel, he regards our intervention in it as necessary. He suggests that we can choose to put ourselves at the service of natural evolution, to help maintain complexity and diversity, diminish suffering and reduce pollution. Bookchin’s social ecology recommends that we use our gifts of sociability, communication and intelligence as if we were “nature rendered conscious”, instead of turning them against the very source and origin from which such gifts derive. Exploitation of nature should be replaced by a richer form of life devoted to nature’s preservation.

John Clark has argued that social ecology is heir to a historical, communitarian tradition of thought that includes not only the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, but also the nineteenth century socialist geographer Elisée Reclus, the eccentric Scottish thinker Patrick Geddes and the latter’s disciple, Lewis Mumford (Clark 1998). Ramachandra Guha has described Mumford as “the pioneer American social ecologist” (Guha 1996, 210). Mumford adopted a regionalist perspective, arguing that strong regional centres of culture are the basis of “active and securely grounded local life” (Mumford 1944, 403). Like the pessimists in critical theory, Mumford was worried about the emergence under industrialised capitalism of a “megamachine”, one that would oppress and dominate human creativity and freedom, and one that—despite being a human product—operates in a way that is out of our control. While Bookchin is more of a technological optimist than Mumford, both writers have inspired a regional turn in environmental thinking. Bioregionalism gives regionalism an environmental twist. This is the view that natural features should provide the defining conditions for places of community, and that secure and satisfying local lives are led by those who know a place, have learned its lore and who adapt their lifestyle to its affordances by developing its potential within ecological limits. Such a life, the bioregionalists argue, will enable people to enjoy the fruits of self-liberation and self-development (see the essays in List 1993, and the book-length treatment in Thayer 2003, for an introduction to bioregional thought).

However, critics have asked why natural features should be significant in defining the places in which communities are to be built, and have puzzled over exactly which natural features these should be—geological, ecological, climatic, hydrological, and so on (see Brennan 1998b). If relatively small, bioregional communities are to be home to flourishing human societies, then a question also arises over the nature of the laws and punishments that will prevail in them, and also of their integration into larger regional and global legal, political and economic groupings. For anarchists and other critics of the predominant social order, a return to self-governing and self-sufficient regional communities is often depicted as liberating and refreshing. But for the skeptics, the worry remains that the bioregional vision is politically over-optimistic and is open to the establishment of illiberal, stifling and undemocratic communities. Further, given its emphasis on local self-sufficiency and the virtue of life in small communities, a question arises over whether bioregionalism is workable in an overcrowded planet. Later bioregional proposals have identified ways of connecting with nature by showing stewardship for green infrastructure within cities (Andersson et al. 2014).

Deep ecology, feminism, and social ecology had a considerable impact on the development of political positions in regard to the environment. Feminist analyses have often been welcomed for the psychological insight they bring to several social, moral and political problems. There is, however, considerable unease about the implications of critical theory, social ecology and some varieties of deep ecology and animism. Some writers have argued, for example, that critical theory is bound to be ethically anthropocentric, with nature as no more than a “social construction” whose value ultimately depends on human determinations (see Vogel 1996). Others have argued that the demands of “deep” green theorists and activists cannot be accommodated within contemporary theories of liberal politics and social justice (see Ferry 1995). A further suggestion is that there is a need to reassess traditional theories such as virtue ethics, which has its origins in ancient Greek philosophy (see the following section) within the context of a form of stewardship similar to that earlier endorsed by Passmore (see Barry 1999). If this last claim is correct, then the radical activist need not, after all, look for philosophical support in radical, or countercultural, theories of the sort deep ecology, feminism, bioregionalism and social ecology claim to be (but see Zimmerman 1994).

4. Traditional Ethical Theories and Contemporary Environment Ethics

Although environmental ethicists often try to distance themselves from the anthropocentrism embedded in traditional ethical views (Passmore 1974, Norton 1991 are exceptions), they also quite often draw their theoretical resources from traditional ethical systems and theories. Consider the following two basic moral questions: (1) What kinds of thing are intrinsically valuable, good or bad? (2) What makes an action right or wrong?

Consequentialist ethical theories consider intrinsic “value” / “disvalue” or “goodness” / “badness” to be more fundamental moral notions than “rightness” / “wrongness”, and maintain that whether an action is right/wrong is determined by whether its consequences are good/bad. From this perspective, answers to question (2) are informed by answers to question (1). For instance, utilitarianism, a paradigm case of consequentialism, regards pleasure (or, more broadly construed, the satisfaction of interest, desire, and/or preference) as the only intrinsic value in the world, whereas pain (or the frustration of desire, interest, and/or preference) is the only intrinsic disvalue, and maintains that right actions are those that would produce the greatest balance of pleasure over pain (see the entry on consequentialism ).

As the utilitarian focus is the balance of pleasure and pain as such, the question of to whom a pleasure or pain belongs is irrelevant to the calculation and assessment of the rightness or wrongness of actions. Hence, the eighteenth century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1789), and later Peter Singer (1993), have argued that the interests of all the sentient beings (i.e., beings who are capable of experiencing pleasure or pain)—including non-human ones—affected by an action should be taken equally into consideration in assessing the action. Furthermore, rather like Routley (see section 2 above), Singer argues that the anthropocentric privileging of members of the species Homo sapiens is arbitrary, and that it is a kind of “speciesism” as unjustifiable as sexism and racism. Singer regards the animal liberation movement as comparable to the liberation movements of women and people of colour. Unlike the environmental philosophers who attribute intrinsic value to the natural environment and its inhabitants, Singer and utilitarians in general attribute intrinsic value to the experience of pleasure or interest satisfaction as such, not to the beings who have the experience. Similarly, for the utilitarian, non-sentient objects in the environment such as plant species, rivers, mountains, and landscapes, all of which are the objects of moral concern for environmentalists, are of no intrinsic but at most instrumental value to the satisfaction of sentient beings (see Singer 1993, Ch. 10). Furthermore, because right actions, for the utilitarian, are those that maximize the overall balance of interest satisfaction over frustration, practices such as whale-hunting and the killing of an elephant for ivory, which cause suffering to non-human animals, might turn out to be right after all: such practices might produce considerable amounts of interest-satisfaction for human beings, which, on the utilitarian calculation, outweigh the non-human interest-frustration involved. As the result of all the above considerations, it is unclear to what extent a utilitarian ethic can also be an environmental ethic. This point may not so readily apply to a wider consequentialist approach, which attributes intrinsic value not only to pleasure or satisfaction, but also to various objects and processes in the natural environment.

Deontological ethical theories, in contrast, maintain that whether an action is right or wrong is for the most part independent of whether its consequences are good or bad (see the entry on deontological ethics ). From the deontologist perspective, there are several distinct moral rules or duties (e.g., “not to kill or otherwise harm the innocent”, “not to lie”, “to respect the rights of others”, “to keep promises”), the observance/violation of which is intrinsically right/wrong; i.e., right/wrong in itself regardless of consequences. When asked to justify an alleged moral rule, duty or its corresponding right, deontologists may appeal to the intrinsic value of those beings to whom it applies. For instance, “animal rights” advocate Tom Regan (1983) argues that those animals with intrinsic value (or what he calls “inherent value”) have the moral right to respectful treatment, which then generates a general moral duty on our part not to treat them as mere means to other ends. We have, in particular, a prima facie moral duty not to harm them. Regan maintains that certain practices (such as sport or commercial hunting, and experimentation on animals) violate the moral right of intrinsically valuable animals to respectful treatment. Such practices, he argues, are intrinsically wrong regardless of whether or not some better consequences ever flow from them. Exactly which animals have intrinsic value and therefore the moral right to respectful treatment? Regan’s answer is: those that meet the criterion of being the “subject-of-a-life”. To be such a subject is a sufficient (though not necessary) condition for having intrinsic value, and to be a subject-of-a-life involves, among other things, having sense-perceptions, beliefs, desires, motives, memory, a sense of the future, and a psychological identity over time.

Some authors have extended concern for individual well-being further, arguing for the intrinsic value of organisms achieving their own good, whether those organisms are capable of consciousness or not. Paul Taylor’s version of this view (1981 and 1986), which we might call biocentrism , is a somewhat deontological example. He argues that each individual living thing in nature—whether it is an animal, a plant, or a micro-organism—is a “teleological-center-of-life” having a good or well-being of its own which can be enhanced or damaged, and that all individuals who are teleological-centers-of life have equal intrinsic value (or what he calls “inherent worth”) which entitles them to moral respect. Furthermore, Taylor maintains that the intrinsic value of wild living things generates a prima facie moral duty on our part to preserve or promote their goods as ends in themselves, and that any practices which treat those beings as mere means and thus display a lack of respect for them are intrinsically wrong. For a summary and overview of Taylor’s biocentric ethic, see Brennan and Lo 2010, 69—86. A biologically detailed defence of the idea that living things have representations and goals and hence have moral worth is found in Agar 2001. Unlike Taylor’s egalitarian and deontological biocentrism, Robin Attfield (1987) argues for a hierarchical view that while all beings having a good of their own have intrinsic value, some of them (e.g., persons) have intrinsic value to a greater extent. Attfield also endorses a form of consequentialism which takes into consideration, and attempts to balance, the many and possibly conflicting goods of different living things (see also Varner 1998 for a defense of biocentric individualism with affinities to both consequentialist and deontological approaches). However, some critics have pointed out that the notion of biological good or well-being is only descriptive not prescriptive (see Williams 1992 and O’Neill 1993, Ch. 2). For instance, even if HIV has a good of its own this does not mean that we ought to assign any positive moral weight to the realization of that good.

Subsequently the distinction between these two traditional approaches has taken its own specific form of development in environmental philosophy. Instead of pitting conceptions of value against conceptions of rights, it has been suggested that there may be two different conceptions of intrinsic value in play in discussion about environmental good and evil. One the one side, there is the intrinsic value of states of affairs that are to be promoted—and this is the focus of the consequentialist thinkers. On the other (deontological) hand there is the intrinsic values of entities to be respected (see Bradley 2006, McShane 2014). These two different foci for the notion of intrinsic value still provide room for fundamental argument between deontologists and consequentialist to continue, albeit in a somewhat modified form.

Note that the ethics of animal liberation or animal rights and biocentrism are both individualistic in that their various moral concerns are directed towards individuals only—not ecological wholes such as species, populations, biotic communities, and ecosystems. None of these is sentient, a subject-of-a-life, or a teleological-center-of-life, but the preservation of these collective entities is a major concern for many environmentalists. Moreover, the goals of animal liberationists, such as the reduction of animal suffering and death, may conflict with the goals of environmentalists. For example, the preservation of the integrity of an ecosystem may require the culling of feral animals or of some indigenous animal populations that threaten to destroy fragile habitats. So there are disputes about whether the ethics of animal liberation is a proper branch of environmental ethics (see Callicott 1980, 1988, Sagoff 1984, Jamieson 1998, Crisp 1998 and Varner 2000).

Criticizing the individualistic approach in general for failing to accommodate conservation concerns for ecological wholes, J. Baird Callicott (1980) once advocated a version of land-ethical holism which takes Leopold’s statement “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” to be the supreme deontological principle. In this theory, the earth’s biotic community per se is the sole locus of intrinsic value, whereas the value of its individual members is merely instrumental and dependent on their contribution to the “integrity, stability, and beauty” of the larger community. A straightforward implication of this version of the land ethic is that an individual member of the biotic community ought to be sacrificed whenever that is needed for the protection of the holistic good of the community. For instance, Callicott maintains that if culling a white-tailed deer is necessary for the protection of the holistic biotic good, then it is a land-ethical requirement to do so. But, to be consistent, the same point also applies to human individuals because they are also members of the biotic community. Not surprisingly, the misanthropy implied by Callicott’s land-ethical holism was widely criticized and regarded as a reductio of the position (see Aiken (1984), Kheel (1985), Ferré (1996), and Shrader-Frechette (1996)). Tom Regan (1983, p.362), in particular, condemned the holistic land ethic’s disregard of the rights of the individual as “environmental fascism”. Since then commentators have noted the links between fascism and conservation thinking (Biehl and Staudenmaier 2011). The subsequent emergence of explicitly ecofascist on-line movements and terrorist acts that claim to be ecologically-inspired (Lawton 2019) lead one writer to declare that there is a danger the world will enter an age of “climate barbarism”(Klein 2019).

Under pressure from the charge of ecofascism and misanthropy, Callicott (1989 Ch. 5, and 1999, Ch. 4) later revises his neo-Leopodian position to maintain that the biotic community (indeed, any community to which humans belong) as well as its individual members (indeed, any individual who shares with us membership in some common community) all have intrinsic value. To further distance himself from the charge of ecofascism, Callicott introduced explicit principles which prioritize obligations to human communities over those to natural ones. He called these “second-order” principles for specifying the conditions under which the land ethic’s holistic and individualistic obligations were to be ranked. As he put it:

... obligations generated by membership in more venerable and intimate communities take precedence over these generated in more recently-emerged and impersonal communities... The second second-order principle is that stronger interests (for lack of a better word) generate duties that take precedence over duties generated by weaker interests. (Callicott 1999, 76)

Lo 2001 provides an overview and critique of Callicott’s changing position over two decades, while Ouderkirk and Hill (eds.) 2002 gives an overview of debates between Callicott and others concerning the metaethical and metaphysical foundations for the land ethic and also its historical antecedents. As Lo points out, the final modified version of the land ethic needs more than two second-order principles, since a third-order principle is needed to specify Callicott’s implicit view that the second second-order principle generally countermands the first one when they come into conflict (Lo 2001, 345). In later work, Callicott follows Lo’s suggestion, while cautioning against aiming for too much precision in specifying the demands of the land ethic (Callicott 2013, 66–7). While Callicott’s reading of Leopold is widely regarded as authoritative, later writers have queried whether Leopold might be better interpreted a a moral pluralist (Dixon 2017) and have also raised doubts about the form of Darwinism that Leopold is supposed to have espoused (Millstein 2015). For further critique of Callicott on Leopold, see also Newman, Varner and Linquist 2017, ch.10.

The controversy surrounding Callicott’s original position, however, has inspired efforts in environmental ethics to investigate possibilities of attributing intrinsic value to ecological wholes, not just their individual constituent parts. Following in Callicott’s footsteps, and inspired by Næss’s relational account of value, Warwick Fox has championed a theory of “responsive cohesion” which aims to give supreme moral priority to the maintenance of ecosystems and the biophysical world (Fox 2007). It remains to be seen if this position escapes the charges of misanthropy and totalitarianism laid against earlier holistic and relational theories of value.

Individual natural entities (whether sentient or not, living or not), Andrew Brennan (1984, 2014) argues, are not designed by anyone to fulfill any purpose and therefore lack “intrinsic function” (i.e., the function of a thing that constitutes part of its essence or identity conditions). This, he proposes, is a reason for thinking that individual natural entities should not be treated as mere instruments, and thus a reason for assigning them intrinsic value. Furthermore, he argues that the same moral point applies to the case of natural ecosystems, to the extent that they lack intrinsic function. In the light of Brennan’s proposal, Eric Katz (1991 and 1997) argues that all natural entities, whether individuals or wholes, have intrinsic value in virtue of their ontological independence from human purpose, activity, and interest, and maintains the deontological principle that nature as a whole is an “autonomous subject” which deserves moral respect and must not be treated as a mere means to human ends. Carrying the project of attributing intrinsic value to nature to its ultimate form, Robert Elliot (1997) argues that naturalness itself is a property in virtue of possessing which all natural things, events, and states of affairs, attain intrinsic value. Furthermore, Elliot argues that even a consequentialist, who in principle allows the possibility of trading off intrinsic value from naturalness for intrinsic value from other sources, could no longer justify such kind of trade-off in reality. This is because the reduction of intrinsic value due to the depletion of naturalness on earth, according to him, has reached such a level that any further reduction of it could not be compensated by any amount of intrinsic value generated in other ways, no matter how great it is.

As the notion of “natural” is understood in terms of the lack of human contrivance and is often opposed to the notion of “artifactual”, one much contested issue concerns the value of those parts of nature that have been touched by human artifice—for instance, previously degraded natural environments which have been humanly restored. Based on the premise that the properties of being naturally evolved and having a natural continuity with the remote past are “value adding” (i.e., adding intrinsic value to those things which possess those two properties), Elliot argues that even a perfectly restored environment would necessarily lack those two value-adding properties and therefore be less valuable than the originally undegraded natural environment. Katz, on the other hand, argues that a restored nature is really just an artifact designed and created for the satisfaction of human ends, and that the value of restored environments is instrumental. He further argues that restoration is a form of the “domination of reality” and controversially compares such domination to Nazi policies of xenophobia, nativism and eliminationsm (Katz 2021). Critics have pointed out that advocates of a moral dichotomy between the natural and the artifactual run the risk of diminishing the value of human life and culture, and fail to recognize that the natural environments interfered with by humans may still have morally important qualities other than pure naturalness (see Lo 1999, and Katz’s response in Katz 2012).

Two other issues central to this debate are that the key concept “natural” seems ambiguous in many different ways (see Hume 1751, App. 3; Mill 1874; Brennan [1988] 2014; Ch. 6; Elliot 1997, Ch. 4), and that those who argue that human interference reduces the intrinsic value of nature seem to have simply assumed the crucial premise that naturalness is a source of intrinsic value. Some thinkers maintain that the natural, or the “wild” construed as that which “is not humanized” (Hettinger and Throop 1999, p. 12) or to some degree “not under human control” (ibid., p. 13) is intrinsically valuable. Yet, as Bernard Williams points out (Williams 1992), we may, paradoxically, need to use our technological powers to retain a sense of something not being in our power. The retention of wild areas may thus involve planetary and ecological management to maintain, or even “imprison” such areas (Birch 1990), raising a question over the extent to which national parks and wilderness areas are free from our control. An anlogy with gardening has sometimes been used to explore the nature of restoration (Allison 2004).

Given the significance of the concept of naturalness in these debates, it is perhaps surprising that there has been relatively little analysis of that concept itself in environmental thought. In his pioneering work on the ethics of the environment, Holmes Rolston has worked with a number of different conceptions of the natural (see Brennan and Lo 2010, pp.116–23, for an analysis of three senses of the term “natural” that may be found in Rolston’s work). An explicit attempt to provide a conceptual analysis of a different sort is found in Siipi 2008, while an account of naturalness linking this to historical narratives of place is given in O’Neill, Holland and Light 2008, ch. 8 (compare the response to this in Siipi 2011). For reflections on how to protect “one nature with several representations” from the perspective of science policy see Ducarme and Couvet 2020.

Finally, as an alternative to consequentialism and deontology both of which consider “thin” concepts such as “goodness” and “rightness” as essential to morality, virtue ethics proposes to understand morality—and assess the ethical quality of actions—in terms of “thick” concepts such as “kindness”, “honesty”, “sincerity” and “justice”. These, and other excellent traits of character are virtues (see the entry on virtue ethics ). As virtue ethics speaks quite a different language from the other two kinds of ethical theory, its theoretical focus is not so much on what kinds of things are good/bad, or what makes an action right/wrong. Indeed, the richness of the language of virtues, and the emphasis on moral character, is sometimes cited as a reason for exploring a virtues-based approach to the complex and always-changing questions of sustainability and environmental care (Hill 1983, Wensveen 2000, Sandler 2007). One question central to virtue ethics is what the moral reasons are for acting one way or another. For instance, from the perspective of virtue ethics, kindness and loyalty would be moral reasons for helping a friend in hardship. These are quite different from the deontologist’s reason (that the action is demanded by a moral rule) or the consequentialist reason (that the action will lead to a better over-all balance of good over evil in the world). From the perspective of virtue ethics, the motivation and justification of actions are both inseparable from the character traits of the acting agent. Furthermore, unlike deontology or consequentialism the moral focus of which is other people or states of the world, one central issue for virtue ethics is how to live a flourishing human life, this being a central concern of the moral agent himself or herself. “Living virtuously” is Aristotle’s recipe for flourishing. Versions of virtue ethics advocating virtues such as “benevolence”, “piety”, “filiality”, and “courage”, have also been held by thinkers in the Chinese Confucian tradition. The connection between morality and psychology is another core subject of investigation for virtue ethics. It is sometimes suggested that human virtues, which constitute an important aspect of a flourishing human life, must be compatible with human needs and desires, and perhaps also sensitive to individual affection and temperaments. As its central focus is human flourishing as such, virtue ethics may seem unavoidably anthropocentric and unable to support a genuine moral concern for the non-human environment. But just as Aristotle has argued that a flourishing human life requires friendships and one can have genuine friendships only if one genuinely values, loves, respects, and cares for one’s friends for their own sake, not merely for the benefits that they may bring to oneself, some have argued that a flourishing human life requires the moral capacities to value, love, respect, and care for the non-human natural world as an end in itself (see O’Neill 1992, O’Neill 1993, Barry 1999). Not only Aristotle, but also Kant can be used in support of such a position. Toby Svoboda argues, for example, that even indirect duties to protect nature can be the basis of good moral reasons to promote the flourishing of natural things, regardless of whether doing so promotes human interests (Svoboda 2019). Other virtue ethicists claim to be able to provie an account of what it is to feel guilt about damage people have done to the environment and to make sense of the idea of a genuine feeling of gratitude toward nature “for being what it is” (Wood 2019).

Despite the variety of positions in environmental ethics developed over the last thirty years, they have often focused on issues concerned with wilderness and the reasons for its preservation (see Callicott and Nelson 1998 for a collection of essays on the ideas and moral significance of wilderness). The importance of wilderness experience to the human psyche has been emphasized by many environmental philosophers. Næss, for instance, urges us to ensure we spend time dwelling in situations of intrinsic value, whereas Rolston seeks “re-creation” of the human soul by meditating in the wilderness. Likewise, the critical theorists believe that aesthetic appreciation of nature has the power to re-enchant human life. As wilderness becomes increasingly rare, people’s exposure to wild things in their natural state has become reduced, and according to some authors this may reduce the chance of our lives and other values being transformed as a result of interactions with nature. An argument by Bryan Norton draws attention to an analogy with music. Someone exposed for the first time to a new musical genre may undergo a transformation in musical preferences, tastes and values as a result of the experience (Norton 1987. Such a transformation can affect their other preferences and desires too, in both direct and indirect ways (see Sarkar 2005, ch. 4, esp. pp. 82–7). In the attempt to preserve opportunities for experiences that can change or enhance people’s valuations of nature, there has been a move since the early 2000s to find ways of rewilding degraded environments, and even parts of cities (Fraser 2009, Monbiot 2013). Note that such rewilding is distinct from more traditional forms of restoration, since it need not be pursued with the intention of re-creating some original landscape or biological system (duToit and Pettorelli 2019). A spectacular form of rewilding may be associated with efforts to resurrect some long-dead species by using genetic technology to combine the DNA of an extinct species with the DNA of some closely-related contemporary species. For a review of some of the issues about de-extinction see Minteer 2015, and also Siipi and Finkelman 2017. Cautions about thinking of de-extinction as radically different from more conventional conservation and restoration practices are expressed in Novak 2018.

By contrast to the focus on wild places, relatively little attention has been paid to the built environment, although this is the one in which most people spend most of their time. In post-war Britain, for example, cheaply constructed new housing developments were often poor replacements for traditional communities. They have been associated with lower amounts of social interaction and increased crime compared with the earlier situation. The destruction of highly functional high-density traditional housing, indeed, might be compared with the destruction of highly diverse ecosystems and biotic communities. Likewise, the loss of the world’s huge diversity of natural languages has been mourned by many, not just professionals with an interest in linguistics. Urban and linguistic environments are just two of the many “places” inhabited by humans. Some philosophical theories about natural environments and objects have potential to be extended to cover built environments and non-natural objects of several sorts (see King 2000, Light 2001, Palmer 2003, while Fox 2007 aims to include both built and natural environments in the scope of a single ethical theory). Certainly there are many parallels between natural and artificial domains: for example, many of the conceptual problems involved in discussing the restoration of natural objects such as landscapes and ecosystems also appear in the parallel context of restoring human-made objects such as buildings and works of art (Vogel 2015).

Lovers of wilderness sometimes consider the high human populations in some developing countries as a key problem underlying the environmental crisis. Rolston (1996), for instance, claims that (some) humans are a kind of planetary “cancer”. He maintains that while “feeding people always seems humane, ... when we face up to what is really going on, by just feeding people, without attention to the larger social results, we could be feeding a kind of cancer.” This remark is meant to justify the view that saving nature should, in some circumstances, have a higher priority than feeding people. But such a view has been criticized for seeming to reveal a degree of misanthropy, directed at those human beings least able to protect and defend themselves (see Attfield 1998, Brennan 1998a). The empirical basis of Rolston’s claims has been queried by work showing that poor people are often extremely good environmental managers (Martinez-Alier 2002). Guha’s worries about the elitist and “missionary” tendencies of some kinds of deep green environmentalism in certain rich western countries can be quite readily extended to theorists such as Rolston (Guha 1999). Can such an apparently elitist sort of wilderness ethics ever be democratised? How can the psychically-reviving power of the wild become available to those living in the slums of Kolkata or São Paolo? These questions so far lack convincing answers.

Connections between environmental destruction, unequal resource consumption, poverty and the global economic order have been discussed by political scientists, development theorists, geographers and economists as well as by philosophers. Links between economics and environmental ethics are particularly well established. Work by Mark Sagoff (1988), for instance, has played a major part in bringing the two fields together. He argues that “as citizens rather than consumers” people are concerned about values, which cannot plausibly be reduced to mere ordered preferences or quantified in monetary terms. Sagoff’s distinction between people as consumers and people as citizens was intended to blunt the use of cost-benefit analysis as the final arbiter in discussions about nature’s value. Of course, spouses take out insurance on each others’ lives. We pay extra for travel insurance to cover the cost of cancellation, illness, or lost baggage. Such actions are economically rational. They provide us with some compensation in case of loss. No-one, however, would regard insurance payments as replacing lost limbs, a loved one or even the joys of a cancelled vacation. So it is for nature, according to Sagoff. We can put dollar values on a stand of timber, a reef, a beach, a national park. We can measure the travel costs, the money spent by visitors, the real estate values, the park fees and all the rest. But these dollar measures do not tell us the value of nature any more than my insurance premiums tell you the value of a human life (also see Shrader-Frechette 1987, O’Neill 1993, and Brennan 1995). If Sagoff is right, cost-benefit analysis cannot be a basis for an ethic of sustainability any more than for an ethic of biodiversity. The potentially misleading appeal to economic reason used to justify the expansion of the corporate sector has also come under critical scrutiny by globalisation theorists (see Korten 1999). These critiques do not aim to eliminate economics from environmental thinking; rather, they resist any reductive, and strongly anthropocentric, tendency to believe that all social and environmental problems are fundamentally or essentially economic. The development of ecological economics explores the scope for common ground between economists and environmental policy-makers, and also the role of environmental ethics in such discussions (Washington and Maloney 2020).

Other interdisciplinary approaches link environmental ethics with biology, policy studies, public administration, political theory, cultural history, post-colonial theory, literature, geography, and human ecology (for some examples, see Norton, Hutchins, Stevens, Maple 1995, Shrader-Frechette 1984, Gruen and Jamieson (eds.) 1994, Karliner 1997, Diesendorf and Hamilton 1997, Schmidtz and Willott 2002). Many assessments of issues concerned with biodiversity, ecosystem health, poverty, environmental justice and sustainability look at both human and environmental issues, eschewing in the process commitment either to a purely anthropocentric or purely ecocentric perspective (see Hayward and O’Neill 1997, and Dobson 1999 for collections of essays looking at the links between sustainability, justice, welfare and the distribution of environmental goods). The future development of environmental ethics depends on these, and other interdisciplinary synergies, as much as on its anchorage within philosophy (Dereniowska and Matzke 2014).

6. Sustainability and Climate Change

The Convention on Biological Diversity discussed in the supplementary document on Biodiversity Preservation was influenced by Our Common Future , an earlier United Nations document on sustainability produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED 1987). The commission was chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway at the time, and the report is sometimes known as the Brundtland Report. This report noted the increasing tide of evidence that planetary systems vital to supporting life on earth were under strain. The key question it raised is whether it is equitable to sacrifice options for future well-being in favour of supporting current lifestyles, especially the comfortable, and sometimes lavish, forms of life enjoyed in the rich countries. As Bryan Norton puts it, the world faces a global challenge to see whether different human groups, with widely varying perspectives, can perhaps “accept responsibility to maintain a non-declining set of opportunities based on possible uses of the environment”. The preservation of options for the future can be readily linked to notions of equity if it is agreed that “the future ought not to face, as a result of our actions today, a seriously reduced range of options and choices, as they try to adapt to the environment that they face” (Norton 2001: 419). Note that references to “the future” need not be limited to the future of human beings only. In keeping with the non-anthropocentric focus of much environmental philosophy, a care for sustainability and biodiversity can embrace a care for opportunities available to non-human living things.

However, when the concept “sustainable development” was first articulated in the Brundtland Report, the emphasis was clearly anthropocentric. In face of increasing evidence that planetary systems vital to life-support were under strain, the concept of sustainable development is constructed in the report to encourage certain globally coordinated directions and types of economic and social development. The report defines “sustainable development” in the following way:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs. Thus the goals of economic and social development must be defined in terms of sustainability in all countries—developed or developing, market-oriented or centrally planned. Interpretations will vary, but must share certain general features and must flow from a consensus on the basic concept of sustainable development and on a broad strategic framework for achieving it. (WCED 1987, Ch. 2, paragraphs 1–2)

The report goes on to argue that “the industrial world has already used much of the planet’s ecological capital. This inequality is the planet’s main ‘environmental’ problem; it is also its main ‘development’ problem” (WCED 1987, Overview, paragraph 17). In the concept of sustainable development the report combines the resource economist’s notion of “sustainable yield” with the recognition that developing countries of the world are entitled to economic growth and prosperity. The notion of sustainable yield involves thinking of forests, rivers, oceans and other ecosystems, including the natural species living in them, as a stock of “ecological capital” from which all kinds of goods and services flow. Provided the flow of such goods and services does not reduce the capacity of the capital itself to maintain its productivity, the use of the systems in question is regarded as sustainable. Thus, the report argues that “maximum sustainable yield must be defined after taking into account system-wide effects of exploitation” of ecological capital (WCED 1987, Ch. 2, paragraph 11).

There are clear philosophical, political and economic precursors to the Brundtland concept of sustainability. For example, John Stuart Mill (1848, IV. 6. 1) distinguished between the “stationary state” and the “progressive state” and argued that at the end of the progressive state lies the stationary state, since “the increase of wealth is not boundless”. Mill also recognized a debt to the gloomy prognostications of Thomas Malthus, who had conjectured that population tends to increase geometrically while food resources at best increase only arithmetically, so that demand for food will ultimately outstrip the supply (see Milgate and Stimson 2009, Ch. 7, and the discussion of Malthus in the Political Economy section of the Spring 2016 version of the entry on Mill ). Reflection on Malthus led Mill to argue for restraining human population growth:

Even in a progressive state of capital, in old countries, a conscientious or prudential restraint on population is indispensable, to prevent the increase of numbers from outstripping the increase of capital, and the condition of the classes who are at the bottom of society from being deteriorated (Mill 1848, IV. 6. 1).

Such warnings resonate with pessimism about increasing human population and its impact on the poorest people, as well as on loss of biodiversity, fresh water scarcity, overconsumption and climate change. In their controversial work The Population Bomb , Paul and Anne Ehrlich, argue that without restrictions on population growth, including the imposition of mandatory birth control, the world faced “mass starvation” in the short term (Ehrlich 1968). This prediction was not fulfilled. In a subsequent defence of their early work, the Ehrlichs declared that the most serious flaw in their original analysis “was that it was much too optimistic about the future”, and comment that “Since The Bomb was written, increases in greenhouse gas flows into the atmosphere, a consequence of the near doubling of the human population and the near tripling of global consumption, indicate that the results will likely be catastrophic climate disruption caused by greenhouse heating” (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2009, 66). It was also in 1968 that Garrett Hardin published his much cited article on the “tragedy of the commons” arguing that common resources can always be subject to degradation and extinction in the face of the rational pursuit of self-interest. For Hardin, the increasing pressure on shared resources, and increasing pollution, are inevitable results of the fact that “there is no technical solution to the population problem” (Hardin 1968). The problem may be analysed from the perspective of the so-called prisoner’s dilemma (also see the entry on the free rider problem ). Despite the pessimism of writers at the time, and the advocacy of setting limits to population growth, there was also an optimism that echoes Mill’s own view that a “stationary state” would not be one of misery and decline, but rather one in which humans could aspire to more equitable distribution of available and limited resources. This is clear not only among those who recognize limits to economic growth (Meadows et al. 1972) but also among those who champion the move to a steady state economy (Daly 1991) or at least want to see more account taken of ecology in economics (Norgaard 1994, Rees 2020).

The Brundtland report puts less emphasis on limits than do Mill, Malthus and later writers. It depicts sustainability as a challenge and opportunity for the world to become more socially, politically and environmentally fair. In pursuit of intergenerational justice , it suggests that there should be new human rights added to the standard list, for example, that “All human beings have the fundamental right to an environment adequate for their health and well being” (WCED 1987, Annexe 1, paragraph 1). The report also argues that “The enjoyment of any right requires respect for the similar rights of others, and recognition of reciprocal and even joint responsibilities. States have a responsibility towards their own citizens and other states” (ibid., chapter 12, paragraph 83). Since the report’s publication, many writers have supported and defended the view that global and economics [normative] and economic justice require that nations which had become wealthy through earlier industrialization and environmental exploitation should allow less developed nations similar or equivalent opportunities for development especially in term of access to environmental resources (Redclift 2005). As intended by the report the idea of sustainable development has become strongly integrated into the notion of environmental conservation. The report has also set the scene for a range of subsequent international conferences, declarations, and protocols many of them maintaining the emphasis on the prospects for the future of humanity, rather than considering sustainability in any wider sense.

Some non-anthropocentric environmental thinkers have found the language of economics used in the report unsatisfactory in its implications since it already appears to assume a largely instrumental view of nature. The use of notions such as “asset”, “capital” and also the word “resources” in connection with natural objects and systems has been identified by some writers as instrumentalizing natural things which are in essence wild and free. The objection is that such language promotes the tendency to think of natural things as mere resources for humans or as raw materials with which human labour could be mixed, not only to produce consumable goods, but also to generate human ownership (Plumwood 1993, Sagoff 2004). If natural objects and systems have intrinsic value independent of their possible use for humans, as many environmental philosophers have argued, then a policy approach to sustainability needs to consider the environment and natural things not only in instrumental and but also in intrinsic terms to do justice to the moral standing that many people believe such items possess. Despite its acknowledgment of there being “moral, ethical, cultural, aesthetic, and purely scientific reasons for conserving wild beings” (WCED 1987, Overview, paragraph 53), the strongly anthropocentric and instrumental language used throughout the Brundtland report in articulating the notion of sustainable development can be criticised for defining the notion too narrowly, leaving little room for addressing sustainability questions directly concerning the Earth’s environment and its non-human inhabitants: should, and if so, how should, human beings reorganise their ways of life and the social-political structures of their communities to allow sustainability and equity not only for all humans but also for the other species on the planet?

The concern for preserving nature and non-human species is addressed to some extent by making a distinction between weaker and stronger conceptions of sustainability (Beckerman 1995). Proponents of weak sustainability argue that it is acceptable to replace natural capital with human-made capital provided that the latter has equivalent functions. If, for example, plastic trees could produce oxygen, absorb carbon and support animal and insect communities, then they could replace the real thing, and a world with functionally equivalent artificial trees would seem just as good—from an economic perpective—as one with real or natural trees in it. For weak sustainability theorists, the aim of future development should be to maintain a consistently productive stock of capital on which to draw, while not insisting that some portion of that capital be natural. Strong sustainability theorists, by contrast, generally resist the substitution of human for natural capital, insisting that a critical stock of natural things and processes be preserved. By so doing, they argue, rivers, forests and biodiverse systems are maintained, hence providing maximum options—options in terms of experience, appreciation, values, and ways of life—for the future human inhabitants of the planet (Norton 2005). The Brundtland report can also be seen as advocating a form of strong sustainability in so far as it recommends that a “first priority is to establish the problem of disappearing species and threatened ecosystems on political agendas as a major resource issue” ( ibid ., chapter 6, paragraph 57). Furthermore, despite its instrumental and economic language, the report in fact endorses a wider moral perspective on the status of and our relation to nature and non-human species, evidenced by its statement that “the case for the conservation of nature should not rest only with development goals. It is part of our moral obligation to other living beings and future generations” (WCED 1987, chapter 2, paragraph 55). Implicit in the statement is not only a strong conception of sustainability but also a non-anthropocentric conception of the notion. Over time, strong sustainability came to be focused not only on the needs of human and other living things but also on their rights (Redclift 2004, 218). In a further development, the discourses on forms of sustainability have generally given way to a more ambiguous usage, in which the term “sustainability” functions to bring people into a debate rather than setting out a clear definition of the terms of the debate itself. As globalization leads to greater integration of world economies, the world after the Brundtland report has seen greater fragmentation among viewpoints, where critics of globalization have generally used the concept of sustainability in a plurality of different ways (Sneddon, Howarth and Norgaard 2006). Some have argued that “sustainability”, just like the word “nature” itself, has come to mean very different things, carrying different symbolic meanings for different groups, and reflecting very different interests (Redclift 2004, 220). For better or for worse, such ambiguity can on occasion allow different parties in negotiations to claim a measure of agreement. For example, commenting on the connections between agricultural systems, sustainability and climate change, one writer has argued that there is exciting scope for negotiation across different world views in working out the conditions for a future sustainable form of agriculture (Thompson 2017).

Meadows’ and Daly’s arguments about the need to recognize that planetary resources are limited have continued to resonate with thinkers, especially those working in ecological economics (Daly and Farley 2011). As one author puts it, “the overriding aim [of ecological economics] ... is to seek viable responses to the biggest dilemma of our times: reconciling our aspirations for the good life with the limitations and constraints of a finite planet” (Jackson 2017, 3). While economic growth is a central focus of neoclassical economic theory (see the entry on philosophy of economics ) a minority of thinkers have joined in supporting an agenda of “de-growth” (or “degrowth”) as an alternative to what is sometimes called “growthism” (for a popular overview see Hickel 2020). From small beginnings in the late 20th century, the idea of de-growth developed from “a political slogan with theoretical implications” to become a significant challenge to the idea of sustainable development considered as a kind of sustainable growth (Martinez-Alier et al . 2010). Advocates of de-growth advocate that the transition to sustainability will be aided by pursuing de-growth instead of economic growth (D’Alisa et al. 2015, Khamara and Kronenbeg 2020). At the same time some ecological economists argue for a rejection of the anthropocentrism they claim is central to neoclassical economics and support embracing a new ecological economics that explicitly incorporates an ecological ethic (Washington and Maloney 2020). Having drawn attention to the huge impact of the human ecological footprint, Rees has gone on to gloomily ponder the kind of economics needed to deal with a situation in which “we are currently ‘financing’ economic growth by liquidating the biophysical systems upon which humanity ultimately depends” (Rees 2020, 1). He concludes that “the mainstream fantasy…...this obsession with growth, cannot end well” ( ibid. , 6). Assuming that some forms of consumption are important to a satisfying human life, some writers have explored the idea that developing more modes of virtual consumption, while reducing physical forms of consumption, might be a significant contribution to sustainable lifestyles (Pike and DesRoches 2020).

The preservation of opportunities to live well, or at least to have a minimally acceptable level of well being, is at the heart of population ethics and many contemporary conceptions of sustainability. Many people believe such opportunities for the existing younger generations, and also for the yet to arrive future generations, to be under threat from continuing environmental destruction, including loss of fresh water resources, continued clearing of wild areas, decreasing biodiversity and a changing climate thus raising questions not only about sustainability but also about environmental justice (see Gonzalez, Atapattu, and Seck 2021). Of these, climate change has come to prominence as an area of intense policy and political debate, to which applied philosophers and ethicists were slow to contribute (Heath 2021). An early exploration of the topic by John Broome shows how the economics of climate change could not be divorced from considerations of intergenerational justice and ethics (Broome 1992), and this has set the scene for subsequent discussions and analyses (see the entry on climate justice ). More than a decade later, when Stephen Gardiner analyses the state of affairs surrounding climate change in an article entitled “A Perfect Moral Storm” (Gardiner 2006), his starting point is also that ethics plays a fundamental role in all discussions of climate policy. But he argues that even if difficult ethical and conceptual questions facing climate change (such as the so-called “ non-identity problem ” along with the notion of historic injustices ) could be answered, it would still be close to politically and socially impossible to formulate, let alone to enforce, policies and action plans to deal effectively with climate change. This is due to the multi-faceted nature of a problem that involves vast numbers of agents and players. At a global level, there is first of all the practical problem of motivating shared responsibilities (see the entry on moral motivation ) in part due to the dispersed nature of greenhouse gas emissions which makes the effects of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon and methane not always felt most strongly in the regions where they originate. Add to this the fact that there is an un-coordinated and also dispersed network of agents—both individual and corporate—responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, and that there are no effective institutions that can control and limit them. But this tangle of issues constitutes, Gardiner argues, only one strand in the skein of quandaries that confronts us. There is also the fact that by and large only the future (and perhaps the current younger) generations will carry the brunt of the impacts of climate change, explaining why so many people in the current generations seem not to have strong enough incentive to act. Finally, he argues it is evident that mainstream political, economic, and ethical models are not up to the task of reaching global consensus, and in many cases not even national consensus, on how best to design and implement fair climate policies. Some consequentialist theorists, however, have argued that a form of rule consequentialism can take account of the interests of future generations who may be inhabiting a "broken world" (Mulgan 2011, 2017). Mulgan argues that by imagining a broken world of limited resources and precarious human survival, it may be possible to devise an ideal moral ooutlook that differs from the ideal code of many rule consequentialists who usually presuppose that the future will be just like the present.

However, Gardiner takes a pessimistic view of the prospects for progress on climate issues. His view includes pessimism about technical solutions, such as geoengineering as the antidote to climate problems, echoing the concerns of others that large scale interventions in—and further domination of—nature may turn out to be an even worse climate catastrophe (Gardiner 2011, ch 11, Jamieson 1996 and see also the papers in Gardiner and McKinnon 2020). A key point in Gardiner’s analysis is that the problem of climate change involves a tangle of issues, the complexity of which conspires to encourage buck-passing, weakness of will, distraction and procrastination, “mak[ing] us extremely vulnerable to moral corruption” ( ibid ., 397; cf. Gardiner 2011; see also the concept of “wicked problem” in Brennan 2004). Because of the grave risk of serious harm to current and future generations of people and other living things, our failure to take timely mitigating actions on climate issues can be seen as a major moral failing, especially in the light of our current knowledge and understanding of the problem (IPCC 2021).

In a related reinterpretation of a classic study in psychology, Russell and Bolton re-examine Milgram’s classic “obedience studies” (see the entry on the concept of evil , section 4.5). In these experiments, Milgram explored the conditions under which ordinary people would be disposed to perform evil actions (such as administering electric shocks to strangers). Russell and Bolton argue that, when properly interpreted, Milgram’s studies show that political, administrative and bureaucratic structures can lead to a general and tacit agreement for those in an advantaged situation to harm the interests of those less powerful. In Russell and Bolton’s new interpretation of the Milgram experiments, those who are in the advantaged situation are those living comfortably in wealthy countries, while the powerless are distant strangers and members of future generations. Corporate structures and long organizational chains, Russell and Bolton argue, encourage inaction, denial and diffusion of responsibility that typifies both the common responses to climate change and also the behaviour of participants in Milgram’s experiments. They conjecture that Milgram’s work thus explains the phenomenon of what they call “responsibility ambiguity” that underlies hesitancy to take action on climate change (Russell and Bolton 2019, and see also Rees 2020). While they make no mention of the work of Hannah Arendt, their analysis recalls some of Arendt’s analysis of the banality of evil (see the entry on the concept of evil , section 2.3). There appears to be scope for more empirical research and interdisciplinary study on topics such as the diffusion of responsibility and denialism. A similar analysis might also apply to inaction in the face of declining biodiversity.

John Broome tries to show some of the ways that one form of climate denialism takes, when it uses ingenious but, Broome claims, flawed reasoning to depict individuals as making no significant contribution to climate change (Broome 2019, see also McKinnon 2014). A stronger form of denialism refuses to acknowledge the fact of anthropogenic climate change at all. A puzzle remains over why much ingenuity is expended on such denial in the face of the urgent problems that now confront the world (see the entry on science and pseudo-science ). In response, some argue that the persisting denialism over the reality of the environmental and climate crises may be a product of shame or guilt over the human treatment of natural things and systems (Aaltola 2021). These emotions may interfere with and block a much-needed and honest confrontation of a frightening situation—even if it is one humans have brought upon themselves. There is also a well-known psychological phenomenon of “knowing but not knowing” which can contribute, along with other factors, to denialism (Norgaard 2011, 404, and compare the classic studyof this in Cohen 2001, ch. 2). Many countries’ initial and ongoing response to the 2020s COVID-19 pandemic, for example, appears to show that denialism, typically accompanied by widespread misinformation and unfounded hypotheses about conspiracies, may be a very human way to react in the face of a global catastrophe. Using factor analysis studies, some psychologists have claimed to demonstrate that anti-scientific views have close association with beliefs in creationism and animism. Further, they conjecture that purposive or teleological thinking is the gateway to such associations (Wagner-Egger et al. 2018). Note that the role of teleological notions in biology remains contested and subject to further research. Other research claims to show that people simply reject scientific findings that make them uncomfortable and threaten their worldviews (see Lewandowsky and Oberauer 2016).

Writers have also tried to make sense of why so much misinformation about climate change and other catastrophes is so widespread. On the part of some theorists (see McIntyre 2018), the blame for the evils of a “post-truth” era has been laid at the feet of some postmodern thinkers who endorse social epistemology . But social constructionist writers have their own diagnosis of the social forces that have given rise to the “new climatic regime” (Latour 2017), which combines science denialism and what has be called “out-of-this-world”—fanciful and over-optimistic—thinking about the human prospects for escaping climate catastrophe. One suggested remedy for these cognitve failings is to encourage the recognition that natural systems respond to human action and are not merely the material resources for economic development. It has been proposed that awareness that humans and the natural systems that support them share a dwelling place might pave the way to a new kind of “terrestrial politics” (Lenton and Latour 2018, Latour 2018). The shape of such a politics is still under-theorized, and could take many forms (Mann and Wainwright 2018). Meanwhile, some animal ethicists blame “speciesist anthropocentrism” (see the entry on the moral status of animals ) for blinding humanity to the evils of its overpopulation and denialism (Almiron and Tafalla 2019). Whatever the future holds, many thinkers insist that solving the problem of climate change is an essential ingredient of sustainability and that the alternative to decisive action may result in the degrading not only of nature and natural systems, but also of human dignity itself (see Nanda (ed.) 2011, especially chapters by Heyd, Balafrej, Gutrich and Brennan and Lo, see also section 3.4 of the entry on human rights ). As humanity faces an uncertain future of declining biodiversity and increasing extreme weather events driven by escalating planetary heating—causing suffering and alienation for humans and non-humans alike—the moral challenges listed at the start of this entry seem more pressing than ever.

Supplementary Document: Pathologies of Environmental Crisis: Theories and Empirical Research
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Article contents

Corporate social responsibility.

  • Abagail McWilliams Abagail McWilliams College of Business Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Published online: 28 February 2020

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a legitimate responsibility to society, based on the principle that corporations should share some of the benefit that accrues from the control of vast resources. CSR goes beyond the legal, ethical, and financial obligations that create profits.

In the research literature, corporate social responsibility is defined in a variety of ways, depending on the aspect of CSR being examined. An inclusive definition is that social responsibility requires the firm to take into account the interests of all stakeholders, where stakeholders are defined as everyone who affects or is affected by the firm’s decisions and actions. A firm-focused definition holds that social responsibility includes actions that further a social goal, beyond what is required by ethics, law, and profitability. A political economy–oriented definition posits that firms have a responsibility to correct market failures such as negative externalities and government failures such as limits to jurisdiction that result in worker rights violations.

When implemented, altruistic CSR implies that firms provide a social good unrelated to the firms’ business that does not benefit the bottom line. Strategic CSR implies that firms are simultaneously profitable and socially responsible. To achieve this, CSR must be a core value of the firm and must be integrated into processes and products. When employed strategically, CSR can be an element of a differentiation strategy, leading to premium prices, enhanced brand and firm reputation, and supportive community relations. Corporate environmental responsibility often takes the form of overcompliance with regulation, improving the environment more than is required. A primary benefit of this is to stave off further regulation.

To capture the benefits of being socially responsible, the firm must make stakeholders aware of its record. This has led to triple bottom line reporting—that is, reporting about firm performance in terms of profits, people, and the planet. Social enterprises go a step further and make social responsibility the primary goal of the organization.

  • corporate environmental responsibility (CER)
  • corporate social performance (CSP)
  • greenwashing
  • overcompliance
  • political corporate social responsibility
  • psychological benefits
  • stakeholders
  • strategic CSR
  • sustainability
  • triple bottom line

Historical Perspective

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) can be thought of as legitimate responsibility to society that goes beyond the legal, ethical, and financial obligations that create profits, based on the principle that corporations should share some of the benefit that accrues from the control of vast resources. Or, more plainly, in market economies corporations can amass great wealth because society protects their right to do so, therefore the corporations owe something back to all of society, not just those engaged in market exchange with the corporations. The world’s resources should benefit the poorest in addition to the wealthiest, and corporations can be the conduit through which resources are befittingly distributed.

When resources are not equitably distributed, the disadvantaged look first to the government for help and support. But when the government hasn’t the resources, the will, or either, it cannot provide adequately for those in need and may engineer public policy to require businesses to be responsible.

The idea that corporations should act responsibly dates back to the inception of industrialization. With industrialization, the poor were often driven off the land and into cities to look for employment. The available employment, however, did not pay a living wage for an individual, let alone a family. This led to crushing poverty, ill health, and short lives for the working poor. Some industries employed young children, and low pay and inhumane working conditions were common (Marx & Engels, 1967 ). In general, governments didn’t have the will to require firms to act responsibly toward exploited groups. However, in 1833 , the English Parliament passed Lord Althorp’s Factory Act, which effectively regulated child labor in the textile industry in England. Responsible behavior was forced upon rich industrialists, but more importantly the act established the right of government to regulate industry for a clear social purpose (Marvel, 1977 ).

A hundred years after the passage of the first effective industrial regulation, the plight of the disadvantaged was not much improved. The Great Depression highlighted the resource disparities inherent in industrialized economies and triggered attention to the lack of social responsibility displayed by wealthy corporations. But World War II intervened, and the focus turned away from social needs and toward supplying the military. After the war ended and throughout the 1950s, economies turned to modernization and, in much of the world, replacement of lost industrial capacity. It was a time of great prosperity in industrial nations, but, as before, the benefits of prosperity were not equally distributed. The politically weak, including women and minorities, didn’t garner much of the benefits.

In the 1960s there was intense focus on social problems, including disparity of opportunity as well as disparity of resources. It was clear that disadvantaged groups did not have equal access to resources, many of which were controlled by corporations for the benefit of their shareholders. As women and minorities gained political power, calls for corporations to be socially responsible became more direct and visible.


There are myriad definitions of corporate social responsibility, a few of which follow. In a managerial context, McWilliams and Siegel ( 2001 , p. 117) define corporate social responsibility as “actions that appear to further some social good, beyond the interests of the firm and that which is required by law.” From an economic perspective, Lundgren ( 2011 , p. 70) defines corporate social responsibility as “actions that, to some degree, imply corporate beyond-compliance behavior in the social and/or the environmental arena,” and Bénabou and Tirole ( 2010 , p. 2) define corporate social responsibility as “sacrificing profits in the social interest.” From a political economy viewpoint, Heal ( 2005 , p. 387) defines corporate social responsibility as “a programme of actions to reduce externalized costs or to avoid distributional conflicts.” The examples go on, with Dahlsrud examining 37 of them and concluding that “Although they apply different phrases, the definitions are predominantly congruent, making the lack of one universally accepted definition less problematic than it might seem at first glance ( 2008 , p. 6).” In a discussion of why there is no definitive definition of corporate social responsibility, McWilliams, Rupp, Siegel, Stahl, and Waldman ( 2019 , p. 3) speculate that “Targeted definitions allow researchers to focus on an area of study such as the environment or stakeholders, or on processes such as operations or strategy, while broad definitions allow interdisciplinary discourse on the motivations and ramifications of CSR.”

Beyond defining what corporate social responsibility is, it is helpful to clarify related terms that are sometimes confused with corporate social responsibility.

Compliance, Ethics, and the Triple Bottom Line

The terms compliance, ethics, and corporate social responsibility are often used interchangeably, but mistakenly so. Carroll’s pyramid of responsibilities is a good guide for separating the concepts. According to Carroll, compliance is a legal requirement, while ethics is the requirement to do no harm, and corporate social responsibility is the expectation for corporations to go beyond compliance and ethics and do good for society, creating social value (Carroll, 1991 ).

But being socially responsible and being irresponsible are not mirror images of each other. That is, being socially responsible is not just the absence of irresponsibility, and neither is social irresponsibility simply the absence of being responsible. Failing to meet any of the three explicit requirements of fiscal responsibility, laws, and ethics is irresponsible management. But meeting all three of these responsibilities does not rise to being socially responsible. Between irresponsible and socially responsible is the state of meeting fiscal, legal, and ethical responsibilities while not going the extra mile to create social good. This can be called socially neutral.

Corporate social responsibility is sometimes referred to as balancing the triple bottom line: profits, people, and the planet. The triple bottom line incorporates the idea of economic, social, and environmental concerns for which a corporation may have responsibility. A corporation that measures its performance against a triple bottom line explicitly promotes a broader responsibility than that of profit maximization and uses triple bottom line performance to convey to internal and external stakeholders that the corporation is being socially responsible in its decisions and operations.

Theoretical Perspectives

Conventional exclusionary view.

Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman argued that the responsibility of business is to maximize profits for the benefit of the owners (shareholders), within ethical and legal boundaries. Responsibility for social programs, he argued, rightfully adheres to elected officials (Friedman, 1970 ).

Arrow ( 1973 ) challenged Friedman’s broad conclusion that corporations have no responsibilities beyond profit maximization on two counts. Count one is that production often generates negative externalities (such as air and water pollution) that are not appropriately priced in the market. Count two is that there is asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Producers have more knowledge about the true quality (and therefore true value) of products than do the consumers who purchase them. Arrow concludes these two market imperfections create a social responsibility for corporations because, while externalities are sometimes regulated by government, asymmetric information is not, and both can be addressed more efficiently by corporations than by governments.

Heal ( 2005 ) offers an updated perspective of corporate social responsibility that builds on Arrow, adding the risk of protests, such as Occupy Wall Street, to Arrow’s challenge of Friedman. Heal proposes that corporate social responsibility programs (such as corporate environmentalism) can reduce externalities and also ward off conflicts and demands for distributive justice, such as Black Lives Matter (Schulz, 2017 ). Arrow and Heal’s arguments also provide a basis for stakeholder theory.

Inclusive View

Stakeholder theory challenges the assumption that shareholders have the only valid claim on the resources controlled by corporations. Freeman and Reed ( 1983 ) argue that any group that affects or is affected by the behavior of the corporation is a stakeholder whose interests should be considered in corporate decision-making. As corporations increasingly acknowledged responsibilities beyond profit maximization, stakeholder management became a means of enhancing firms’ reputations and improving community relations, and stakeholder theory became a dominant logic in corporate social responsibility. Incorporating stakeholder theory into strategic management has resulted in stakeholder analysis being directed at helping managers identify stakeholders and prioritize claims on corporate resources (Chandler, 2017 ).

Carroll ( 1991 ) repudiates Friedman’s conclusion that corporations have no social responsibility. He proposes a normative model of corporations as organizations with multiple responsibilities: economic/fiscal, legal, ethical, and philanthropic. The economic responsibility is necessary for survival, legal responsibility is required for legitimacy, ethical responsibility is required to do no harm, and philanthropic responsibilities are expected of a good corporate citizen. Carroll depicts the responsibilities as a pyramid, with profitability as the base, followed by legal, then ethical and finally philanthropic as the pinnacle. Carroll’s characterization of corporate responsibility is that it includes all four categories, including the philanthropic contributions to the community to promote social good. However, philanthropy differs in being expected, but not required.

Economic View

To explain the link between corporate social responsibility and profitability, McWilliams and Siegel ( 2001 ) take a micro-economic–based theory of the firm perspective. From this perspective, they assume that corporate managers seek to maximize profits and ask the question: How can managers determine the optimal amount of investment to make in corporate social responsibility, that is, how can they determine the amount of investment in corporate social responsibility that is consistent with profit maximization? They propose that corporate social responsibility can be a component of a differentiation strategy. Consumers demonstrate a demand for socially responsible products (e.g., LED lights, free trade coffee, hybrid vehicles) and production processes (e.g., animal-free testing, green production, organic farming), and firms respond by adding the demanded socially responsible characteristics, thereby creating a differentiated product. The added costs of differentiating the product lead to premium prices. McWilliams and Siegel ( 2001 ) therefore conclude that, because the investment in corporate social responsibility supports the firm’s differentiation strategy, it should be treated the same as any strategic investment. To maximize profits, the corporation should invest up to the point where the additional cost of corporate social responsibility is equal to the additional revenue generated by corporate social responsibility.

Lundgren ( 2011 ) provides a formal, mathematical model of corporate social responsibility at the firm level based on micro-economic theory. He proposes that the costs of socially responsible programs can be offset by the increased revenues from consumers who value corporate social responsibility and the increased market value generated by investors who value corporate social responsibility. He explicitly models goodwill capital, an intangible asset, as a primary benefit of corporate social responsibility, tying corporate social responsibility explicitly to firm value and potential profitability.

Corporate social responsibility can also be conceptualized as a form of reputation insurance that protects the firm’s reputation when adverse events occur (Minor & Morgan, 2011 ). Adverse events, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are especially costly because they include both direct cost—such as fines, legal costs, and compensation to injured parties—and the indirect costs associated with loss of corporate reputation (Mejri & DeWolf, 2013 ). Loss of reputation can affect stock price, financing terms, and future revenue far into the future. When an adverse event occurs, external stakeholders will make judgments about what went wrong. They may decide that the adverse event was the result of poor management and downgrade the reputation of the firm or they may decide that the event was just bad luck and not recalibrate the reputation of the firm. Being known for corporate social responsibility can sway external judgments in favor of management and the firm, protecting the firm’s reputation and significantly lowering the indirect costs of such an event.

Political View

Bagnoli and Watts ( 2003 ) characterize corporate social responsibility as the private provision (by the corporation) of a public good (such as pollution abatement). Building on this, Scherer and Palazzo ( 2011 ) propose that globalization of business has resulted in political, rather than normative or economic, corporate social responsibility. They point out that laws and regulations are enforced within national boundaries, while social problems know no boundaries and negative externalities (such as air pollution) cross boundaries. The void in global governance may be (perhaps by necessity) addressed by businesses, especially multinational corporations. According to Scherer and Palazzo ( 2011 ), political corporate social responsibility suggests that corporations will contribute to global regulation (such as sustainability or workplace safety) and provide public goods (such as human rights protections and community wellness programs).

Bénabou and Tirole ( 2010 ) characterize corporate social responsibility as a response to government failure. They discuss three ways in which governments fail: capture by special interest groups, limits to jurisdiction, and poor information and inefficiency.

In addressing the problem of limited jurisdiction, Christmann ( 2004 ) suggested that multinationals will embrace a global strategy so that they can transfer best practices of social responsibility across boundaries, effectively creating global standards. Multinational corporations that enforce the same standards everywhere they operate may be merely complying with regulation in their home country but being socially responsible in countries with lower standards. Implementing the same standards globally allows multinational corporations to be more efficient by taking advantage of scale economies and also benefiting from reputation insurance.

McWilliams and Siegel ( 2011 ) reject Baron’s view that motivation determines what is socially responsible behavior and, in contrast, argue that social responsibility that is motivated by profitability can reconcile Friedman’s view of the profit maximization responsibility of the firm with that of social responsibility. That is, by being socially responsible, firms can attend to the bottom line (profits) while also creating social good. This is known as strategic corporate social responsibility, a term introduced by Burke and Logsdon ( 1996 ). To the extent that corporations are meeting expectations of stakeholders, strategic corporate social responsibility disputes Friedman’s view that social responsibility adheres to public officials. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Strategic behaviour is the general term for actions taken by firms which are intended to influence the market in which they compete. Strategic behavior includes actions to influence rivals to act cooperatively so as to raise joint profits, as well as non-cooperative actions to raise the firm’s profits at the expense of rivals” (OECD, 2007 , p. 751).

McWilliams and Siegel ( 2001 ) concluded that firms can respond to demands for corporate social responsibility by incorporating social responsibility into a differentiation strategy. The firm differentiates its products/services to include CSR attributes, as well as incorporating CSR into firm processes. Differentiation should allow the firm to charge premium prices to cover additional costs of providing the socially responsible attributes.

However, when asymmetric information allows firms that do not engage in corporate social responsibility to position their products as similar to those that do embody corporate social responsibility, the socially responsible firm may face a competitive disadvantage. The socially responsible firm invests in corporate social responsibility but cannot charge more than the firms that do not. In this situation, the socially responsible firms may be forced to lobby their government for legally enforceable standards that apply to all firms in the industry (Heslin & Ochoa, 2008 ). Conversely, some firms will lobby for standards that cost their competitors more to meet than they cost the lobbying firm. The lobbying firm can create a competitive advantage by masking competitive behavior as social responsibility (McWilliams, Van Fleet, & Cory, 2002 ).

An important distinction of strategic corporate social responsibility is that it is embedded in the corporation’s operations, processes, and core competencies (Aguinis & Glavas, 2013 ), regardless of whether it is implicit as was more conventional in European companies or explicit as in U.S. companies (Matten & Moon, 2008 ). Embedding corporate social responsibility allows for synergistic effects, such as when a steel company uses its core competency in plant design and construction to build plants that are more efficient and use less energy (i.e., are environmentally responsible). Linking the corporation’s social responsibility to its core competencies can produce maximum social benefit. Being explicit and transparent about its corporate social responsibility also enables and enhances positive effects on firm reputation (Servaes & Tamayo, 2013 ).

Corporate social responsibility can be a long-term strategic asset that enhances reputation and brand image. As such, it can lead to customer loyalty and repeat sales and, in some industries, premium prices. Originally thought to only support a differentiation strategy, we now see corporate social responsibility prominently reported by low-cost-leader companies in business-to-business and commodity industries (Nucor, 2018 ). This indicates that while corporate social responsibility can support premium pricing, it also can result in lower costs, such as lower financing costs, lower legal costs, or lower turnover costs, as well as a higher-quality, better-motivated workforce (Sprinkle & Maines, 2010 ). Therefore, strategic corporate social responsibility can support a low-cost-leader strategy when embedded in the core competencies that create low-cost advantage.

However, corporate social responsibility activities will create benefits for the corporation only if they are effectively and honestly communicated to internal and external stakeholders (Lee, Oh, & Kim, 2013 ). When the corporation appears to be claiming to do more than it actually does, employees and consumers quickly become jaded and remain skeptical of future corporate social responsibility claims. Therefore, corporations must be forthright about their social responsibility so as to not generate or escalate skepticism.


Environmental responsibility is one of the fastest growing areas of corporate social responsibility worldwide. Because compliance with environmental standards is a legal responsibility, being socially responsible means overcompliance. Corporate environmentalism is sometimes referred to as corporate environmental responsibility.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created by executive order in 1970 and made responsible for enforcing environmental laws. Early regulation was command and control: the EPA set standards and mandated how corporations complied. Over time, more attention was paid to gathering and disseminating information, and corporations moved to design solutions that met standards in more efficient/cost-effective ways, providing a springboard for corporate environmentalism.

Maxwell, Lyon, and Hackett ( 2000 ) couched corporate environmentalism as strategic self-regulation to preempt political action. They find that the threat of increased regulation is sufficient to prompt corporations to overcomply with existing environmental regulation. Because political action is costly for the firm and for the activists, it makes sense for firms to overcomply to fend off political action, benefiting both the corporation and the environment.

Voluntary environmental reporting such as the Global Reporting Initiative of 1997 encourages corporations to overcomply with environmental regulations and to actively engage in corporate environmentalism (Sheehy, 2019 ) to enhance firm reputation and brand. A reputation for environmentalism can result in many benefits, including attracting environmentally conscious consumers and investors (Lyon & Maxwell, 2008 ), the aforementioned preemption of regulation, and lower legal and financing costs. This last is a result of the lower probability that the firm will incur legal costs as a result of violating environmental standards, such as those tied to oil spills and poisonous gas leaks, since the internal target exceeds the legal regulation (Sheehy, 2019 ).

Environmental laws and regulations differ around the globe, requiring firms to be aware of local regulations but also providing them with opportunities to search for favorable (presumably less stringent) standards. However, Dowell, Hart, and Yeung ( 2000 ) found that firms that enforce the most stringent regulations worldwide are most successful. Additionally, Nidumolu, Prahalad, and Rangaswami ( 2009 ) found that corporations that innovate ahead of increasing standards have time to experiment and test new solutions and that corporations that enforce a single standard worldwide can take advantage of scale economies.

Conversely, corporate environmentalism branding can have serious negative consequences if not designed and implemented properly. Firms that fail to deliver on their environmental claims can be charged with “greenwashing,” that is, overstating their environmentalism. A particularly insidious form of “greenwashing” takes place when a corporation masks its true environmental performance by engaging in selective disclosure of benign impacts rather than full disclosure (Marquis, Toffel, & Zhou, 2016 ). In an empirical study of “greenwashing,” Walker and Wan ( 2012 ) demonstrated that claiming to be green (i.e., environmentally responsible) without actual green behavior negatively affects a corporation’s financial performance.


Corporate environmentalism increasingly embraces sustainability, which is a more comprehensive program of environmental stewardship. Sustainability requires attention to global and intergenerational effects of corporate operations.

According to the 1987 UN Brundtland report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987 ), “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is sustainable. From this, one can extrapolate a definition of corporate environmental sustainability that incorporates a universal dimension—not just a clean environment where the corporation operates now, but a global and intergenerational one. That is, socially responsible corporations must consider the effects of current operations on the environment both now and in the future. They must also balance current and future economic and equity responsibilities.

Sustainability implies more than environmental impact management: all resources must be managed to ensure sustainability. Corporations must be mindful of how they manage farm land, forests, ocean fish stocks, animal and plant breeding, and valuable minerals, as well as how they can support sustainable development in developing economies. Hart ( 2010 ) coined the phrase “sustainable global enterprise” to label multinational enterprises that deliver economic, social, and environmental benefits across all their global operations. An example of a sustainable global enterprise is a multinational food company that “has implemented living wage standards for all of its farm workers in every country in which it harvests fruit, and which has introduced state-of-the-art environmental practices throughout its supply chain” (Aguilera, Rupp, Williams, & Ganapathi, 2007 , p. 838).

Nidumolu et al. ( 2009 ) studied sustainability initiatives of multinational corporations and found that embracing sustainability led to innovation that creates better products and new businesses, increases brand loyalty, and reduces costs—contributing to both the top line (revenue) and bottom line (profitability) of the corporation. Consumers perceive that products that are produced sustainably or have sustainable characteristics are better products and, therefore, worth more. New revenue streams can come from businesses created by recycling and reusing products that have exhausted their original purpose. Additional revenue is generated when consumers develop brand loyalty through their experience with sustainable products. Cost reductions come from using fewer inputs in all parts of the value chain (from raw materials, through production and distribution to final sales). Additionally, firms that anticipate increasing environmental regulation can innovate ahead of their competitors and reap first-mover advantages. All of these increase the bottom line as well as being socially responsible.

Social Enterprise

The simplest type of corporate social responsibility is philanthropy, where a corporation donates part of its profits to programs that address social problems. The inner workings of the firm, its organization, its mission, its strategy, etc., are unaffected by the goals of the programs that receive financial support.

The social goods produced by the financially supported programs can be peripheral to the corporation. Some corporations that engage in strategic corporate social responsibility explicitly align social goods produced with other strategic components of the firm. For example, firms may have “buy one–give one” program where customers buy a branded product (e.g., a pair of shoes) and the firm gives one (pair of shoes) to a child in need. The social mission is less peripheral to profit-making.

Social enterprises go one step further than that and make their social mission part of the firm’s core. Defourny and Nyssens ( 2008 , p. 202) define social enterprises as “not-for-profit private organizations providing goods or services directly related to their explicit aim to benefit the community.”

One type of social enterprise is a benefit corporation, which is a legal business entity that is required to have a social mission at its core (Hiller, 2013 ). In the United States, the need for a new legal form of for-profit that explicitly recognizes a social mission led to laws in some states that allow for benefit corporations. These corporations must declare themselves as such in their articles of incorporation and are required to submit to review by an independent third party to confirm that they are fulfilling their social mission. It should be noted that the independent review of the impact of benefit corporations is holistic—that is, it comprises all of the effects of the corporation on society, not merely its effect on selected areas such as profitability and environmentalism (B Lab Company, 2017 ). This is in contrast to standard corporations, which can legally engage in “greenwashing,” promoting corporate social responsibility activities while simultaneously obfuscating socially irresponsible actions (Marquis et al., 2016 ; Walker & Wan, 2012 ).

Another type of social enterprise is social entrepreneurship, which is an “innovative, social value creating activity that can occur within or across the nonprofit, business, or government sectors” (Austin, Stevenson, & Wei-Skillern, 2012 , p. 371). While the social mission is always core to social entrepreneurship, it is not always obviously so, because it may be either explicit or implicit. In social entrepreneurship for the disadvantaged the social mission is explicit, that is, benefits (such as jobs) are provided to the disadvantaged. In social entrepreneurship by the disadvantaged, there is an implicit social mission of improving the (disadvantaged) entrepreneur’s circumstances, irrespective of whether there is an explicit social mission, such as providing jobs for others who are disadvantaged (Renko & Freeman, 2019 ).

The implicit social mission of entrepreneurship by the disadvantaged provides a conduit for social good created by corporate social responsibility programs, making support of entrepreneurship an attractive option for firms that engage with disadvantaged populations. For example, multinational corporations in Africa are adding to their corporate social responsibility portfolios the support of entrepreneurship in disadvantaged economies through education, training, and skills development initiatives (DeBerry-Spence, Torres, & Hinson, 2019 ).

The Business Case

The business case for corporate social responsibility refers to the belief that there is a causal link between being socially responsible and achieving profitability. It is argued that firms that do good (for society) will do well (be more profitable and have higher market value). In the context of corporate social responsibility, “doing well” can be the result of many advantages, such as premium pricing, repeat sales, higher employee productivity, lower cost of capital, or lower legal costs, all of which may translate into higher profitability and firm value in either the short run or the long run. Determining if firms “do good” is more problematic but is generally referred to as corporate social performance, which Wood defines as “a business organization’s configuration of principles of social responsibility, processes of social responsiveness, and policies, programs, and observable outcomes as they relate to the firm’s societal relationships” ( 1991 , p. 693). Two widely used measures of corporate social performance are the Fortune Corporate Reputation Index and the Kinder, Lydenberg and Domini (KLD) index of reputation (Fombrun, Gardberg, & Sever, 2000 ).

In the 1990s the business case for corporate social responsibility (doing well by doing good) became a dominant theme in academic research. Countless empirical studies attempted to show a causal link between corporate social responsibility and corporate financial performance. These studies were hampered by difficulties in defining and measuring corporate social performance, often leading to inconsistent results (Margolis & Walsh, 2003 ) and sometimes suffering from lack of methodological rigor (McWilliams & Siegel, 2000 ). Barnett ( 2007 ) concludes that there is no universal evidence of doing well by doing good, because doing well is contingent upon the corporation, the timing, and the particular socially responsible investment. He suggests that academic research should focus on figuring out when, where, and what type of social responsibility will allow corporations to do well by doing good. Carroll and Shabana ( 2010 , p. 101) support Barnett’s findings and conclude that “the benefits of CSR are not homogeneous, and effective CSR initiatives are not generic.”

Although meta-analyses have been conducted (e.g., Friede, Busch, & Bassen, 2015 ) in an attempt to make sense of the inconsistent results of earlier studies, the inclusion of criticized empirical studies and the bias toward publishing only studies that have statistically significant results makes the results of meta-analyses problematic. Given the inherent difficulties of testing the business case for corporate social responsibility, including, “the inaccessibility, both apparent and actual, of good data” (Wood, 2010 , p. 75) and the lack of consensus on appropriate methodology, academic research has subsequently moved beyond trying to empirically verify a causal link between corporate social responsibility and profitability to accepting that corporations have social responsibilities and examining how such responsibilities can be met to the advantage of the corporation and society, ultimately arriving at the concept of strategic corporate social responsibility.

Non-Pecuniary Benefits

Although it’s difficult to separate out and quantify the effects of corporate social responsibility on firm performance, the effects on individuals can be measured directly by survey methodology. Therefore, we have better evidence of the non-pecuniary effects of corporate social responsibility than we have of corporate social performance. Corporate social responsibility is by definition about the corporation, but it is individuals who make decisions, carry out corporate social responsibility programs, and are affected by corporate actions. Stakeholders such as managers, employees, consumers, investors, and community members can shape and be shaped by corporate social responsibility activity and consequently often receive psychological benefits from their association with socially responsible corporations. The psychological benefits generated by these associations with the corporation are a component of the social value created by corporations that engage in corporate social responsibility.

Internal Stakeholders

Internal stakeholders include managers, employees, and board members, all of whom may affect or be affected by the firm’s social responsibility programs, processes, and reputation. Corporate social responsibility can be initiated by managers for personal reasons, including personal values, religious beliefs, commitment to social causes, professional image building, or a need to feel good about themselves (Hemingway & Maclagan, 2004 ). Manager-initiated corporate social responsibility can be either strategic or philanthropic, depending on the constraints of corporate governance, firm strategic orientation, and the availability of discretionary funds. Managers receive a psychological benefit when they can support their personal values, religious beliefs, or identity. It is common for large corporations to have social responsibility officers who shape the culture and reputation of the firm, maintain corporate social responsibility programs, and communicate to internal and external stakeholders. These executives have more opportunity to reap social and psychological benefits from corporate social responsibility.

In general, people desire to have meaning in their lives and often look for meaning in their work. Aguinis and Glavas ( 2019 ) explored how corporate social responsibility can help employees find meaning in their work. The closer the fit between the corporation’s identity and the employee’s identity, the more meaningful the work will seem. For example, a person who identifies as a caregiver will find meaningfulness in their work in a hospital. Corporate social responsibility programs provide additional information and experience that can help workers find more meaning in their work, that is, they may perceive that their work can serve a greater purpose.

Corporate social responsibility can affect employees’ perceptions and attitudes about their work and workplace. Gavin and Maynard ( 1975 ) tested the relationship between the employee’s perception of the corporation’s concern for the environment and the employee’s general satisfaction with their employment. They found that employees tended to report more satisfaction the greater the perceived corporate concern for the environment. Perhaps more telling, they found that the younger workers in the 1970s were most concerned about corporate environmentalism, which perhaps foretold increasing environmental awareness and activism.

Chong ( 2009 ) examined how participation in corporate social responsibility programs affect employee’s understanding and commitment to the corporation’s identity, where organization identity can be defined as “the set of meanings by which a company allows itself to be known and through which it allows people to describe, remember and relate to it” (Wheeler, Richey, Tokkman, & Sablynski, 2006 , p. 98). Chong found that participation in corporate social responsibility programs feeds off of and reinforces corporate identity, resulting in the employee experiencing higher motivation, satisfaction, and commitment to the corporation.

Mozes, Josman, and Yaniv ( 2011 ) studied the relationship between corporate social responsibility activity and both organizational identification (a driver of loyalty) and motivation to work. Workers in their study were classified as either active participants or non-active participants in volunteerism programs. Active participants demonstrated higher levels of organizational identification and motivation to work. To be most effective for external beneficiaries and most meaningful for the employees, corporate social responsibility must be embedded in the routines and processes of the organization (Aguinis & Glavas, 2013 ).

Meister ( 2012 ) found that 53% of workers surveyed by the nonprofit Net Impact reported that having a job where they can make a difference to society is important to their happiness. Further, 72% of students getting ready to enter the workforce also felt this way. According to Meister, to recruit and retain young top talent, corporations not only have to engage in corporate social responsibility, they must communicate their engagement through social media.

External Stakeholders

External stakeholders may be affected by the firm’s social responsibility programs, processes, or products, but as outsiders they do not affect these. External stakeholders include consumers, suppliers, investors, and community.

Consumers derive psychological value from purchasing socially responsible products. According to Green and Peloza ( 2011 ) there are three categories of benefit: emotional, social, and functional. Buying products from socially responsible companies allows consumers to feel good about themselves. This emotional response can be associated with companies that make charitable contributions to social causes. Consumers feels good about themselves (emotional benefit) for buying from a company that is altruistic. Alternatively, buying products from a socially responsible company can define the consumer as a good person to others and elevate their position in the community (social benefit). This social response can be associated with companies that champion a social cause such as environmental sustainability. Functional benefit comes from purchasing products that function better because of CSR attributes, such as fuel-efficient cars. The three types of benefit can work together and amplify each other. “For example, a hybrid vehicle can provide functional value (lower operating costs), emotional value (joy in saving or environmental stewardship), and social value (meeting relevant norms)” (Green & Peloza, 2011 , p. 52). For consumers to derive value from corporate social responsibility, they must be aware of it. Corporations traditionally used company reports, web pages, and advertising to make consumers aware of their corporate social responsibility but are now feeling pressure to communicate more broadly and often over social media.

Socially responsible investing provides psychological value to investors. According to Beal, Goyen, and Philips ( 2005 ), this value can take the form of “fun of participation” similar to what gamblers experience, or it can take the form of happiness similar to that generated by pleasurable activities. Psychological value augments the financial returns to socially responsible investments and helps explain the decision to invest in screened funds. According to Dam and Scholtens ( 2015 , p. 104), “consumers receive a warm-glow” when they invest responsibly.

Benefits to Investors

Investing in socially responsible firms, commonly referred to as socially responsible investing (SRI), is a way for investors to join their values and their desire for monetary gain. This has become easier for individual and institutional investors with the growth of mutual funds focused on socially responsible investing. At the start of 2018 there was over $30 trillion invested in socially responsible stock, with nearly half this amount held in Europe (Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, 2019 ). In the United States there are mutual funds that filter for social responsibility, allowing individual and institutional investors to encourage socially responsible corporations while withholding support from firms that engage in industries (such as gambling) or activities (such as genetic modification) that are not viewed as socially responsible. Because perceptions of what is socially responsible and what is not can vary, mutual fund managers develop screens to appeal to different viewpoints and choose stock of firms that meet the criteria of the screen but also meet the criteria for firm/stock performance. Several empirical studies comparing the returns to socially responsible funds and unrestricted funds have found that there is no systematic difference (e.g., Bauer, Koedijk, & Otten, 2005 ; Hamilton, Jo, & Statman, 1993 ; Sauer, 1997 ). In a meta-analysis of earlier studies, Revelli and Viviani ( 2015 , p. 158) found that “the consideration of corporate social responsibility in stock market portfolios is neither a weakness nor a strength compared with conventional investments.” On average the returns to SRI funds are the same as the returns to unrestricted funds, making SRI funds attractive to both individual and institutional investors because they combine competitive financial returns with psychological benefits (feeling good about oneself for being socially responsible).

Other avenues for socially responsible investing include individual stocks (with the opportunity to engage directly with the corporation) and community development financial institutions which engage in socially responsible investing by providing loans to small businesses in low-income, at-risk communities who otherwise would not have access to financing (Schueth, 2003 ).

Corporate social responsibility is a well-researched and thoroughly discussed topic. While there is general consensus among researchers and commentators that corporations have responsibilities to society that go beyond profit maximization, what those responsibilities are and how they should be met are still open questions. Stakeholder theory, Carroll’s pyramid of corporate responsibilities, micro-economic theory of the firm, altruistic and strategic corporate social responsibility, corporate self-regulation, political corporate social responsibility, corporate environmentalism, and sustainability all offer insights into the responsibilities of corporations and how those responsibilities may be met.

When viewed from the perspective of the firm, the evidence of corporate social responsibility has generally been about the link between corporate social performance and financial performance or firm value, with mixed results. But financial effects are not the only effects of corporate social responsibility. Individuals experience psychological effects that are also a part of the social good created by socially responsible corporations. Researchers have reported significant effects, including:

Workers find meaning in their work and experience higher motivation, satisfactionm and commitment to the firm.

Consumers feel good about themselves.

Investors get a warm glow from supporting socially responsible firms.

We have abundant information about what is and isn’t corporate social responsibility, how corporate social responsibility benefits corporations and individuals, and how investors can encourage socially responsible corporations and discourage irresponsible corporations. However, we know less about how corporations can address social problems such as human rights, justice, poverty, and environmental sustainability and next to nothing about the record of corporate social responsibility in addressing such social problems.

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5 Examples of Corporate Social Responsibility That Were Successful

Balancing People and Profit

  • 06 Jun 2019

Business is about more than just making a profit. Climate change, economic inequality, and other global challenges that impact communities worldwide have compelled companies to be purpose-driven and contribute to the greater good .

In a recent study by Deloitte , 93 percent of business leaders said they believe companies aren't just employers, but stewards of society. In addition, 95 percent reported they’re planning to take a stronger stance on large-scale issues in the coming years and devote significant resources to socially responsible initiatives. With more CEOs turning their focus to the long term, it’s important to consider what you can do in your career to make an impact .

Access your free e-book today.

What Is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a business model in which for-profit companies seek ways to create social and environmental benefits while pursuing organizational goals, like revenue growth and maximizing shareholder value .

Today’s organizations are implementing extensive corporate social responsibility programs, with many companies dedicating C-level executive roles and entire departments to social and environmental initiatives. These executives are commonly referred to as a chief officer of corporate social responsibility or chief sustainability officer (CSO).

There are many types of corporate social responsibility and CSR might look different for each organization, but the end goal is always the same: Do well by doing good . Companies that embrace corporate social responsibility aim to maintain profitability while supporting a larger purpose.

Rather than simply focusing on generating profit, or the bottom line, socially responsible companies are concerned with the triple bottom line , which considers the impact that business decisions have on profit, people, and the planet.

It’s no coincidence that some of today’s most profitable organizations are also socially responsible. Here are five examples of successful corporate social responsibility you can use to drive social change at your organization.

5 Corporate Social Responsibility Examples

1. lego’s commitment to sustainability.

As one of the most reputable companies in the world, Lego aims to not only help children develop through creative play, but foster a healthy planet.

Lego is the first, and only, toy company to be named a World Wildlife Fund Climate Savers Partner , marking its pledge to reduce its carbon impact. And its commitment to sustainability extends beyond its partnerships.

By 2030, the toymaker plans to use environmentally friendly materials to produce all of its core products and packaging—and it’s already taken key steps to achieve that goal.

Over the course of 2013 and 2014, Lego shrunk its box sizes by 14 percent , saving approximately 7,000 tons of cardboard. Then, in 2018, the company introduced 150 botanical pieces made from sustainably sourced sugarcane —a break from the petroleum-based plastic typically used to produce the company’s signature building blocks. The company has also recently committed to removing all single-use plastic packaging from its materials by 2025, among other initiatives .

Along with these changes, the toymaker has committed to investing $164 million into its Sustainable Materials Center , where researchers are experimenting with bio-based materials that can be implemented into the production process.

Through all of these initiatives, Lego is well on its way to tackling pressing environmental challenges and furthering its mission to help build a more sustainable future.

Related : What Does "Sustainability" Mean in Business?

2. Salesforce’s 1-1-1 Philanthropic Model

Beyond being a leader in the technology space, cloud-based software giant Salesforce is a trailblazer in the realm of corporate philanthropy.

Since its outset, the company has championed its 1-1-1 philanthropic model , which involves giving one percent of product, one percent of equity, and one percent of employees’ time to communities and the nonprofit sector.

To date, Salesforce employees have logged more than 5 million volunteer hours . Not only that, but the company has awarded upwards of $406 million in grants and donated to more than 40,000 nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

In addition, through its work with San Francisco Unified and Oakland Unified School Districts, Salesforce has helped reduce algebra repeat rates and contributed to a high percentage of students receiving A’s or B’s in computer science classes.

As the company’s revenue continues to grow, Salesforce stands as a prime example of the idea that profit-making and social impact initiatives don’t have to be at odds with one another.

3. Ben & Jerry’s Social Mission

At Ben & Jerry’s, positively impacting society is just as important as producing premium ice cream.

In 2012, the company became a certified B Corporation , a business that balances purpose and profit by meeting the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.

As part of its overarching commitment to leading with progressive values, the ice cream maker established the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation in 1985, an organization dedicated to supporting grassroots movements that drive social change.

Each year, the foundation awards approximately $2.5 million in grants to organizations in Vermont and across the United States. Grant recipients have included the United Workers Association, a human rights group striving to end poverty, and the Clean Air Coalition, an environmental health and justice organization based in New York.

The foundation’s work earned it a National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy Award in 2014, and it continues to sponsor efforts to find solutions to systemic problems at both local and national levels.

Related : How to Create Social Change: 4 Business Strategies

4. Levi Strauss’s Social Impact

In addition to being one of the most successful fashion brands in history, Levi’s is also one of the first to push for a more ethical and sustainable supply chain.

In 1991, the brand created its Terms of Engagement , which established its global code of conduct regarding its supply chain and set standards for workers’ rights, a safe work environment, and an environmentally-friendly production process.

To maintain its commitment in a changing world, Levi’s regularly updates its Terms of Engagement. In 2011, on the 20th anniversary of its code of conduct, Levi’s announced its Worker Well-being initiative to implement further programs focused on the health and well-being of supply chain workers.

Since 2011, the Worker Well-being initiative has been expanded to 12 countries and more than 100,000 workers have benefited from it. In 2016, the brand scaled up the initiative, vowing to expand the program to more than 300,000 workers and produce more than 80 percent of its product in Worker Well-being factories by 2025.

For its continued efforts to maintain the well-being of its people and the environment, Levi’s was named one of Engage for Good’s 2020 Golden Halo Award winners, which is the highest honor reserved for socially responsible companies.

5. Starbucks’s Commitment to Ethical Sourcing

Starbucks launched its first corporate social responsibility report in 2002 with the goal of becoming as well-known for its CSR initiatives as for its products. One of the ways the brand has fulfilled this goal is through ethical sourcing.

In 2015, Starbucks verified that 99 percent of its coffee supply chain is ethically sourced , and it seeks to boost that figure to 100 percent through continued efforts and partnerships with local coffee farmers and organizations.

The brand bases its approach on Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices , one of the coffee industry’s first set of ethical sourcing standards created in collaboration with Conservation International . CAFE assesses coffee farms against specific economic, social, and environmental standards, ensuring Starbucks can source its product while maintaining a positive social impact.

For its work, Starbucks was named one of the world’s most ethical companies in 2021 by Ethisphere.

Which HBS Online Business in Society Course is Right for You? | Download Your Free Flowchart

The Value of Being Socially Responsible

As these firms demonstrate , a deep and abiding commitment to corporate social responsibility can pay dividends. By learning from these initiatives and taking a values-driven approach to business, you can help your organization thrive and grow, even as it confronts global challenges.

Do you want to gain a deeper understanding of the broader social and political landscape in which your organization operates? Explore our three-week Sustainable Business Strategy course and other online courses regarding business in society to learn more about how business can be a catalyst for system-level change.

This post was updated on April 15, 2022. It was originally published on June 6, 2019.

what is the meaning of social and environmental responsibility essay

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What Is CSR? Corporate Social Responsibility Explained

what is the meaning of social and environmental responsibility essay

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what is the meaning of social and environmental responsibility essay

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable to itself, its stakeholders, and the public. 

By practicing corporate social responsibility, also called corporate citizenship , companies are aware of how they impact aspects of society, including economic, social, and environmental. Engaging in CSR means a company operates in ways that enhance society and the environment instead of contributing negatively to them.

Key Takeaways

  • Corporate social responsibility is a business model by which companies make a concerted effort to operate in ways that enhance rather than degrade society and the environment.
  • CSR can help improve society and promote a positive brand image for companies.
  • CSR includes four categories: environmental impacts, ethical responsibility, philanthropic endeavors, and financial responsibilities.

Understanding Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Through corporate social responsibility programs , philanthropy, and volunteer efforts, businesses can benefit society while boosting their brands. A socially responsible company is accountable to itself and its shareholders. CSR is commonly a strategy employed by large corporations. The more visible and successful a corporation is, the more responsibility it has to set standards of ethical behavior for its peers, competition, and industry .

Small and midsize businesses also create social responsibility programs, although their initiatives are rarely as well-publicized as those of larger corporations.

  • Environmental responsibility: Corporate social responsibility is rooted in preserving the environment. A company can pursue environmental stewardship by reducing pollution and emissions in manufacturing, recycling materials, replenishing natural resources like trees, or creating product lines consistent with CSR.
  • Ethical responsibility: Corporate social responsibility includes acting fairly and ethically. Instances of ethical responsibility include fair treatment of all customers regardless of age, race, culture, or sexual orientation, favorable pay and benefits for employees, vendor use across demographics, full disclosures, and transparency for investors.
  • Philanthropic responsibility: CSR requires a company to contribute to society, whether a company donates profit to charities, enters into transactions only with suppliers or vendors that align with the company philanthropically, supports employee philanthropic endeavors, or sponsors fundraising events.
  • Financial responsibility: A company might make plans to be more environmentally, ethically, and philanthropically focused, however, it must back these plans through financial investments in programs, donations, or product research including research and development for products that encourage sustainability, creating a diverse workforce, or implementing DEI, social awareness, or environmental initiatives.


Some corporate social responsibility models replace financial responsibility with a sense of volunteerism. Otherwise, most models still include environmental, ethical, and philanthropic as types of CSR.

Benefits of CSR

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, consumers are more likely to act favorably toward a company that has acted to benefit its customers. As a company engages in CSR, it is more likely to receive favorable brand recognition . Additionally, workers are more likely to stay with a company they believe in. This reduces employee turnover, disgruntled workers, and the total cost of a new employee .

For companies looking to outperform the market, enacting CSR strategies may improve how investors view the company's value. The Boston Consulting Group found that companies considered leaders in environmental, social, or governance matters had an 11% valuation premium over their competitors.

CSR practices help companies mitigate risk by avoiding troubling situations. This includes preventing adverse activities such as discrimination against employee groups, disregard for natural resources, unethical use of company funds, and activity that leads to lawsuits, and litigation .

CSR programs can raise morale in the workplace.  

In its 2022 Environmental and Social Impact Report, Starbucks ( SBUX ) highlights taking care of its workforce and the planet among its CSR priorities through stock grants and additional medical, family, and educational benefits. The company's goals include achieving 50% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and waste by 2030.

Home Depot ( HD ) has invested more than 1 million hours per year in training to help front-line employees advance in their careers, aims to produce or procure 100% renewable energy to operate its facilities by 2030, and has plans to spend $5 billion per year with diverse suppliers by 2025.

General Motors won the Sustainability Leadership Award from the Business Intelligence Group in 2022. The automaker provided $60 million in grants to more than 400 U.S. nonprofits focusing on social issues, and it has agreements in place to use 100% renewable electricity at its U.S. sites by 2025.

Why Should a Company Implement CSR Strategies?

Many companies view CSR as an integral part of their brand image, believing customers will be more likely to do business with brands they perceive to be more ethical. In this sense, CSR activities can be an important component of corporate public relations. At the same time, some company founders are also motivated to engage in CSR due to their convictions.

What Is ISO 26000?

In 2010, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) released ISO 26000, a set of voluntary standards to help companies implement corporate social responsibility. Unlike other ISO standards, ISO 26000 provides guidance rather than requirements because the nature of CSR is more qualitative than quantitative, and its standards cannot be certified. ISO 26000 clarifies social responsibility and helps organizations translate CSR principles into practical actions.

What Are the Benefits of CSR?

CRS initiatives strive to have a positive impact on the world through direct benefits to society, nature and the community in which a business operations. In addition, a company may experience internal benefits through the initiatives. Knowing their company is promoting good causes, employee satisfaction may increase and retention of staff may be strengthened. In addition, members of society may be more likely to choose to transact with companies that are attempting to make a more conscious positive impact beyond the scope of its business.

What Companies Have the Best CSR?

Since 1999, Corporate Responsibility Magazine has ranked the top 100 Best Corporate Citizens each year among the 1,000 largest U.S. public companies. Rankings are based on employee relations, environmental impact, human rights, governance, and financial decisions. In 2023, the top-ranked companies include Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Company, Accenture, and Hasbro.

Companies striving to measure success beyond bottom-line financial results may adopt CSR strategies that target environmental, ethical, philanthropic, and fiscal responsibility that extend beyond the products they sell.

Society for Consumer Psychology. " Good Guys Can Finish First: How Brand Reputation Affects Extension Evaluations ."

Boston Consulting Group. " Your Supply Chain Needs a Sustainability Strategy ."

Frontiers in Psychology. " Corporate Social Responsibility and Employee Engagement: Enabling Employees to Employ More of Their Whole Selves at Work ."

Starbucks. " 2022 Starbucks Global Environmental and Social Impact Report ," Pages 6 and 32.

Home Depot. " ESG Report (2022) ," Pages 9-10.

General Motors. " 2022 Sustainability Report ," Pages 6-7.

International Organization for Standardization. " ISO 26000, Social Responsibility ."

3BL Media. " 100 Best Corporate Citizens of 2023 ."

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  • Why Social Responsibility Matters to Businesses 2 of 22
  • Investing in Unethical Stocks: Pros and Cons for Traders 3 of 22
  • Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) vs. Sin Stocks 4 of 22
  • Racial Justice Investing: What It is, How It Works 5 of 22
  • The Top 5 Impact Investing Firms 6 of 22
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  • The Rise of the Socially Responsible ETFs 8 of 22
  • Demand for ESG Investments Soars Emerging From COVID-19 Pandemic 9 of 22
  • A Guide to Faith-Based Investing 10 of 22
  • Socially Responsible Investment for Gender Empowerment 11 of 22
  • A History of Impact Investing 12 of 22
  • Impact Investing vs. Venture Philanthropy 13 of 22
  • How Do ESG, SRI, and Impact Funds Differ? 14 of 22
  • Ethical Investing: Overview and How To Do It 15 of 22
  • Social Responsibility in Business: Meaning, Types, Examples, and Criticism 16 of 22
  • What Is CSR? Corporate Social Responsibility Explained 17 of 22
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Environmental Responsibility definition example

Environmental Responsibility Definition & EXAMPLE

Nowadays environmental responsibility examples are all around us, as corporations scramble to announce their new environmental sustainability efforts.

Environmental responsibility is the duty of businesses to prevent and alleviate the environmental damage that may be caused by their commercial activities. A growing number of institutional investors evaluate the company’s environmental responsibility efforts before eventually investing.

At the same time, governments are also imposing strict environmental standards and regulations.

Key Takeaways

  • Companies can make a significant environmental impact through responsible supply chain choices.
  • Reducing resource use and waste benefits both the environment and business efficiency.
  • Investing in green technologies and digital transformation enhances sustainability and profitability.

Before going more into detail regarding the reasons for becoming an environmentally responsible business and the actions that companies could take, let’s better explain the concept with a great example!

environmental responsibility Example: Ikea

Most large companies still have a long way to go with increasing their green practices until they can truly be called examples of environmental responsibility. There are also inherent difficulties with becoming sustainable when your business model is centred on more disposable and mass-produced products.

The Swedish furniture retailer IKEA is an interesting example of environmental responsibility. IKEA is a company that has devoted much more effort than most to making environmental conservation one of its primary goals.

environmental responsibility example ikea

Almost all of the wood used in IKEA products comes from sustainable sources, including recycled wood.

Their furniture is also designed so that waste is minimised during production, and is made to be lighter so that less fuel is used during transport.

100% of IKEA’s cotton also comes from sustainable sources , and it aims to do the same with wool within the next few years.

The company has similar goals when it comes to plastic, though there is still a way to go yet, as it currently aims to use only recycled and renewable plastics by 2030. It has now phased out single-use disposable plastic products, including plastic shopping bags, and has replaced them with disposables from renewable sources.

IKEA has also successfully become energy independent , relying completely on renewable energy that is generated by itself, such as by the countless solar panels that cover its stores, as well as by owning hundreds of wind turbines.

The company certainly still has many problems with environmental sustainability , including the inherent problems with its business model, such as how they encourage customers to buy more than they need, and how it is often easier to just buy new IKEA products than to repair older or damaged pieces of furniture.

Despite these issues, the company is still continuing to move in the right direction, and it will be enlightening to see how they tackle those problems in the future.

IKEA is without a doubt an interesting example of how companies can try to apply environmentally conscious practices to become more sustainable .

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Why is environmental responsibility important?

Responsible environmental efforts are important because every person who has ever lived has depended on the natural world for their survival, and that has not changed for people living in the modern world.

why is Environmental Responsibility important

Our needs, however, have far exceeded what our environment can provide to us, and as a result, we are now living in a critical time period where it is imperative that we transition to sustainable ways of living . 

All businesses worldwide play a central part in creating that better future. To do so, companies should adopt a triple bottom line sustainability model: environmental protection, social equity, and economic profit . Where environmental responsibility is key to achieving the goals of the ecological preservation and long term success of the business.

In the modern world, companies contribute extensively to environmental degradation, and every company that continues to damage the environment is contributing to creating a less hospitable world for future generations to live in.

Knowing this, it is clear that all businesses, both big and small, have a responsibility to take action to reduce their negative impact on the world and give back to it in any way that they can.

Beyond just preventing damage to the environment and the devastating consequences that will arise from that, there are many reasons why a business should make environmental responsibility one of its highest priorities.

To start with, being an environmentally friendly company means reducing waste and using less energy and other resources, which leads to increased efficiency and lower costs as a very tangible advantage over companies that do not do the same. Here are a couple more reasons to keep in mind:

Preparing For The Future

Environmental responsibility will soon be essential for ensuring that a business can survive over the long term.

Many common and profitable, but very damaging, business practices will become less and less viable in the coming years, as more people begin to place more importance on buying products from responsible companies, and as tighter restrictions are placed on how various products can be manufactured.

For one example, in July 2021 the European Union introduced a ban on many single-use plastic products, such as straws and cutlery, as well as some products made of other materials such as polystyrene, in order to reduce marine waste. This means that, at some point, plastic-free products, like shampoos , conditioners, and much more, would be the only ones available.

More restrictions on plastic products in the EU are also planned, and once alternatives to them arrive it is certain that other environmentally damaging materials will have restrictions placed on them.

It is likely many other countries will introduce similar restrictions in the future, affecting companies in many places around the world.

Businesses that rely heavily on environmentally irresponsible practices will have a harder time transitioning when laws such as these come into effect and will face legal issues if they fail to do so in time.  

Environmental responsibility is not just a legal thing, but an ethical one too, and people all around the world are becoming increasingly aware of just how important it is.

It is not enough for businesses to just do the bare minimum of obeying laws relating to environmental sustainability. In order to make a real difference, they have to do more and will be expected to do more.

Purchasing products and services that do not harm the environment is becoming an increasingly high priority for many people, especially younger generations, even if it means having to pay more. As a result, businesses which fail to meet these higher standards of environmental friendliness will inevitably look less attractive and lose customers.  

A company may have much to lose if it fails to meet expectations for protecting the environment, but on the other hand, businesses that take the initiative and make environmental responsibility a priority will have much to gain, as more and more potential customers are beginning to search for environmentally friendly businesses to buy from.

A sustainable and responsible business will also have the advantage of attracting skilled and experienced potential employees who would have avoided working at an irresponsible company.

Actions to take for environmental responsibility

actions to take for environmental responsibility

It is not always easy to transition to more sustainable ways of operating a business , as for all companies in the world to operate effectively with no environmental impact whatsoever, changes on a much larger, worldwide scale are needed.

Despite this, most companies still have a lot of control over their impact on the natural environment, and certainly, enough to make a meaningful difference.

Here are examples of a few changes that can make a big difference :

  • Consider who you purchase your supplies, power and other resources from. Are you already purchasing supplies from sustainable and responsible sources, or could you search for better ones? Are your products being made from responsibly-sourced materials? You could also see if you could make your power use more environmentally friendly, such as by installing solar panels on the roofs of the company’s buildings or applying any of the existing examples of sustainability to your business. Solar energy offers interesting benefits to the environment , so it is often high on the list for many business leaders.
  • Try to reduce the resources that your business uses , which will reduce costs as well. For example, you could ensure that your workplaces do not use more power than they need to, by purchasing more efficient lighting, heating and other electronics, and encouraging employees to save power wherever possible. You should also reduce waste from supplies you use, such as paper and stationery if the workplace is an office or recycle cardboard for businesses such as supermarkets.
  • Invest in new digital technologies to improve your products , manufacturing processes and much more. Being more efficient and having a better product design can not only reduce the energy and raw materials consumption but can also attract new customers and increase the business profitability while also improving sustainability thanks to green technologies.
  • Take a look at what impact some of your daily business activities have. For example, if you and your employees often need to travel, try to see if there are more sustainable options for doing so, especially if you often travel by air. Ideally, you could eliminate the need to travel completely by holding meetings and other activities remotely . 
  • Ensure that you recycle and reuse everything that you can. You should also purchase things such as office supplies that are made of recycled material.
  • If you need to build new facilities, keep sustainable urban design in mind and make sure to use sustainable construction materials and renewable sources. Making sure that the new construction is built to last will also help in reducing its long term environmental impact.
  • Plant trees . The world needs a lot more trees in it, and every company can help repair the damage we’ve done, for example by planting more trees on its own premises or donating a percentage of its sales to organisations that plant more trees all around the world.

The damage that unsustainable practices , such as open pit mining have had on the environment is immense and continues every day, but the tide is quickly beginning to turn and there are many reasons to be optimistic for the future.

When a business takes action to make its operations responsible and sustainable, it may seem like it is only making a small difference, but every company that does the same thing raises the bar slightly and helps to make environmental responsibility a standard that every business has to reach.

  • EU Restrictions On Certain Single-use Plastics
  • IKEA Environmental Initiatives – Wikipedia


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    Many times, you will judge that the financial and environmental cost of the trip is far outweighed by the benefits. Those are the times you should travel. My argument here is that it is the thought process, the analysis of environmental costs and benefits, that is at the heart of an individual's responsibility for environmental sustainability.

  6. Essays on Social Responsibility

    Social responsibility is a modern philosophy that states that all individuals and organizations are obligated to help the community at large. This is typically an active effort involving acting against a social issue or prevention of committing harmful acts to the environment. Many companies and individuals engage in social responsibility ...

  7. Essay on Social Responsibility

    In simple words, social responsibility is the responsibility of an individual to act in a way that promotes social well-being. This means that a person has a sense of obligation to society and sacrifices for the good of others. BYJU'S essay on social responsibility explains the importance of being a socially responsible citizen.

  8. Definitions of Social Responsibility

    Introduction. Social responsibility is the ideological notion that organizations should not behave unethically or function amorally, and should aim (instead) to deliberately contribute to the welfare of society or societies - comprised of various communities and stakeholders - that they operate in and interact with.

  9. Social and Environmental Responsibility, Sustainability, and Human

    Environmental consciousness arises when there is an understanding of the need for a balance between life and nature. This study aims to investigate whether such consciousness affects purchasing ...

  10. Responsibility and the Environment—What's at Stake?

    Abstract. This chapter introduces the study's central concern: analyzing responsibilit (ies) for addressing the social and ecological consequences of the Anthropocene and applying this perspective to the governance of environmental issues. Questions of responsibility, who should do what, and on which grounds, are essential issues on every level ...

  11. Environmental Responsibility

    Definition. Environmental responsibility is the idea that business organizations have an obligation to consider their impact on the natural environment. This obligation may be found in either the laws of the relevant jurisdiction (s) where they operate or in a broader moral obligation as an actor in society.

  12. PDF Why Is Social Responsibility Important?

    Social responsibility is broadly defined as taking responsibility to behave ethically and with sensitivity toward social, cultural, civic, and environmental issues. ... Environmental: Is knowledgeable about current issues of environmental significance, is concerned about the well-being of the planet, and engages in sustainable behaviors. ...

  13. The Importance of Social Responsibility for Businesses

    A social audit is a formal review of a company's procedures, code of conduct regarding social responsibility, and the company's impact on society. more Conscious Capitalism: Definition, 4 ...

  14. Corporate social responsibility research: the importance of context

    There has, in recent times, been an increasing interest in understanding corporate social (and environmental) responsibility (CSR) and, in particular, CSR reporting in developing countries. However, many of these studies fail to investigate fully the contextual factors that influence CSR and reporting in those countries, preferring to rely on theories and hypotheses developed from studies ...

  15. (PDF) Environmental Responsibility

    This chapter reviews and offers taxonomy of the theoretical literature on environmental responsibility. A substantial part of the review is devoted to the theory behind environmentally responsible ...

  16. What is Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)?

    ESG stands for environmental, social and governance and refers to a set of standards used to measure an organization's environmental and social impact. It's typically used in the context of investing, although it also applies to customers, suppliers, employees and the general public. The term "ESG" was popularized in the 21st century ...

  17. Environmental Ethics

    Environmental ethics is the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its non-human contents. This entry covers: (1) the challenge of environmental ethics to the anthropocentrism (i.e., human-centeredness) embedded in traditional western ethical ...

  18. Corporate Social Responsibility

    Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a legitimate responsibility to society, based on the principle that corporations should share some of the benefit that accrues from the control of vast resources. CSR goes beyond the legal, ethical, and financial obligations that create profits. In the research literature, corporate social responsibility ...

  19. Social Responsibility in Business: Meaning, Types ...

    Social responsibility is the idea that businesses should balance profit-making activities with activities that benefit society; it involves developing businesses with a positive relationship to ...

  20. What Is Corporate Social Responsibility? 4 Types

    Types of Corporate Social Responsibility. CSR is traditionally broken into four categories: environmental, philanthropic, ethical, and economic responsibility. 1. Environmental Responsibility. Environmental responsibility is the belief that organizations should behave in as environmentally friendly a way as possible.

  21. 5 Examples of Corporate Social Responsibility

    5 Corporate Social Responsibility Examples. 1. Lego's Commitment to Sustainability. As one of the most reputable companies in the world, Lego aims to not only help children develop through creative play, but foster a healthy planet. Lego is the first, and only, toy company to be named a World Wildlife Fund Climate Savers Partner, marking its ...

  22. What Is CSR? Corporate Social Responsibility Explained

    Corporate social responsibility, often abbreviated "CSR," is a corporation's initiatives to assess and take responsibility for the company's effects on environmental and social wellbeing. The term ...

  23. Environmental Responsibility Definition & EXAMPLE

    Environmental responsibility is the duty of businesses to prevent and alleviate the environmental damage that may be caused by their commercial activities. A growing number of institutional investors evaluate the company's environmental responsibility efforts before eventually investing. At the same time, governments are also imposing strict ...

  24. The Deloitte Global 2024 Gen Z and Millennial Survey

    Social responsibility DIversity & inclusion Social impact ... Environmental sustainability is everyone's responsibility. Environmental sustainability continues to be among Gen Zs' and millennials' top priorities. It is a personal concern that consistently weighs heavily on them, with roughly six in 10 Gen Zs and millennials saying they ...